LINCOLN — A sobering pre-New Year’s message about the dangers of drinking and driving was issued yesterday by State Police and the self-described numbers-crunchers of highway injury statistics, but no one put it more eloquently than Tori Andreozzi.
She said nothing.
Incapable of speaking, the 22-year-old woman sat awkwardly in a wheelchair while a family member held a sign above her head that said, “I am the victim of a drunk driver.”
Andreozzi was 12 years old when she stepped off a school bus and was struck by a drunken driver in West Warwick. The former martial arts star suffered traumatic brain injuries that left her a quadriplegic, totally dependant on others for the most routine functions of everyday life.
She was Exhibit A as the State Police vowed to redouble their efforts to curb drunken driving and other risky motoring behaviors in the year ahead. Officials from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the state Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and North Cumberland Emergency Medical Services were on hand to help State Police Supt. Steven O’Donnell kick off the campaign, dubbed “365 Days of Safety Awareness.”
The national death toll from motor vehicle accidents has been steadily trending downward for decades, reaching its lowest ebb in 62 years in 2011. But O’Donnell said the figure — 32,376 fatalities, about a third of which involved an impaired motorist — is still far too high.
“Highway deaths are more than double the number of persons murdered nationwide,” he said. “We should be shocked and outraged by these numbers.”
In Rhode Island, 66 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents last year, including 24 that involved alcohol. Rhode Island actually outperformed the nation in reducing the proportion of deaths linked to alcohol, with an 11 percent decline from 2010, according to NHTSA.
The presentation in the cafeteria of the Community College of Rhode Island dramatized the highway carnage by substituting living human beings for those lost on the roads last year. Those killed by drunken drivers wore red T-shirts, and everyone killed for some other reason, including speeding, texting while driving and failure to wear seatbelts, wore black.
“Our numbers are actually people,” said Gabe Cano, regional director of NHTSA, the federal agency that tracks highway injuries, fatal and otherwise. “They’re brothers, sisters, husbands ...”
While Cano wasn’t suggesting people shouldn’t enjoy themselves during the holidays, he said they could avoid the risk of injury or arrest simply by planning ahead. Don’t drink and drive, appoint a designated driver who isn’t impaired and if you know someone has been drinking, don’t allow that individual to get behind the wheel, he advised.
O’Donnell said all motorists can help by dialing *77911 on their cell phones to alert authorities if they see someone else driving erratically.
“Think about this when you’re out with your friends,” offered Phil Kydd, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation. “It’s actually cool to be responsible.”
DOT proclaimed zero highway fatalities to be a worthy goal for 2013, but the state’s official target is to cut highway deaths in half by 2030.
“Sometimes we worry about the message getting stale,” said Kydd, “but when you take a look at these red shirts, black shirts, there’s nothing stale about it.”
Lloyd Albert, senior vice president of public and government affairs for AAA of Southern New England, called the goal of zero deaths “a good one, no matter how elusive that goal might be.”
In addition to the living humans who served as stand-ins for 2011’s death count, about 30 police officers from departments all over the state were on hand for the pre-holiday presentation, forming a phalanx behind the speakers’ lectern.
At one point, the living stand-ins for 2011’s highway deaths were instructed to step aside from the lectern, but there was still one real-life victim of a drunk driver left behind when they cleared the area — Andreozzi
Cathy Andreozzi, her mother, said the motorist responsible for maiming her daughter was ordered to serve 10 years in prison and ended up serving six.
“There’s no amount of time that can ever make up for it,” she says. “As a parent, you want to fix things. The best I can do now is support law enforcement, support MADD and maybe I can fix it for other families so it doesn’t happen to them.”