Commentary: The Vermont Public Safety Commissioner’s Highway to Hell
SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — On Wednesday afternoon, the Vermont Department of Public Safety, and the Agency of Transportation hosted the Vermont Impaired Driving Summit in South Burlington. As the leaf on the banner suggests, the intended message of the event was clear: Police will continue to make the argument that marijuana is the most dangerous factor in highway safety in Vermont and that until they’re satisfied, they’ll oppose all legalization. Unfortunately, that argument is based on fear, not on facts, and is made by people who are contradicting themselves, statistical evidence, and the advice of experts.
To their credit, typically the people who choose to dedicate their lives to protect and serve in law enforcement are much worse than politicians in bending facts and making misleading statements; Unfortunately for Shumlin, nobody would accuse Flynn of being his yes-man (or bobblehead), but unfortunately, Flynn does seem to have picked up a defiant hubris.
Although he’s unelected and was appointed by a governor of the outgoing, losing party, Phil Scott’s cabinet appointments have been Jim Douglas 2.0, so it’s probably a safe bet that Governor-elect Scott sticks with the status quo and keeps Commissioner Flynn around
Back in August, the Brattleboro Reformer reported that traffic deaths were up 68% in the first half of 2016 compared to 2015. No other VT media outlet thought that dramatic increase was newsworthy at the time, but I did write an editorial noting that while police were spending time in Montpelier lobbying against marijuana legalization, highway deaths were nearly doubling while weed stayed illegal. And although it would have helped the police’s argument, “Impairment by alcohol, drugs or both was a contributing factor in almost half of this year’s fatal crashes in Vermont — a trend that matches that of 2015.”
On Wednesday, Commissioner Flynn reiterated that consistent ‘a little less than half’ percentage again saying that about half of the 62 highway deaths thus far in 2016 were related to alcohol, drugs, or alcohol and drug (together) related. As noted in early September, the biggest causes of fatal crashes on Vermont roads are actually speeding and a lack of seat-belts, not impairment.
Whatever the cause and however tragic the circumstances, auto deaths may be the most common deaths on the news, but the fact is they are nowhere near the most common cause of death in Vermont and should be considered in context when talking about state policy.
According to Flynn, there have been 62 fatal auto crashes thus far in 2016 with the average over the past five years 60.6 fatal car crashes per year. In 2014, fatal car crash numbers in Vermont hit their five year low with only 44; meanwhile, in that same year there were 69 deaths from firearms and 124 deaths from suicide (# 10 in the country).
As Sue Minter learned the hard way, the majority of the state doesn’t think that (any) gun control is an immediate political priority. As multiple recent public incidences have affirmed, we lack the capacity to provide acceptable mental health services right now to prevent people in crisis from slipping through the
cracks gaping holes.
Governor-elect Scott won as a fiscal conservative and unless he finds some new revenue source out of nowhere (like the $125M underground, untaxed marijuana market), it’s not likely that spending for social services like mental health and addiction–which affect significantly more Vermonters than fatal car crashes each year–will increase.
Even if you sincerely believe that it’s more important to
waste spend money on pulling over VT drivers to test for an arbitrary amount of THC than to spend our limited funds on education, addiction, or economic development, you should know the actual data. Just a few weeks ago, the Joint Justice Oversight Committee received the “DUI/Drug Offense Enforcement Challenges: Report on Act 158 of 2016“, a report with a familiar name at the top: John Campbell, the Senator-turned-lobbyist who is currently (formally) employed as the Executive Director of State’s Attorney and Sheriffs.
The Senator-turned-lobbyist (remember that proposed ethics commission that didn’t get out of the senate?) wasn’t there himself, but take a look at one of his charts, which breaks down the fatal crashes and the impairment involved. Out of the 48 fatalities, 12 didn’t involve any drugs or alcohol and 10 involved alcohol but no drugs, meaning that 22 total were confirmed not to include drugs (beyond alcohol) versus the 13 total that definitely did include drugs.
However, according to Mary Spicer of the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Highway Safety Division (and absolutely no other data or evidence) cannabis is the number one drug present in drivers in crashes on Vermont highways. In fact, in that same report above that was given as testimony by Lobbyist John Campbell and his VTrans All-Star Band to the joint legislative justice oversight committee in November, on page 7 it says:
“Currently, the Vermont Forensic Laboratory (VFL) is without the proper and necessary resources to conduct blood-drug tests or, to confirm an oral fluids test. The reason for this shortfall is the lack of adequate space and certified personnel to perform such tests. Blood data is often used in the prosecution of crimes, especially DUI/Drug cases, however, it has almost become cost prohibitive due to its expense. Currently, prosecutors must send blood samples to NMS Laboratory in Pennsylvania for analysis due to VFL’s inability to conduct the tests.”
But yet, Ms. Spicer and the rest of this cabal of state officials are now telling the news media with certainty that “Cannabis is the number one drug present in drivers in crashes on Vermont highways.”
Before the election, Commissioner Flynn at least played along with the notion that decisions would be made by legislators based upon expert testimony, the opinion of the legislature and the public, statistics, and common sense.
However now, obviously emboldened by Governor-elect Scott (who clearly dislikes change so much he’s actually gone back in time and literally appointed Jim Douglas’ cabinet) Generalissimo Flynn has apparently determined that he’s going to write the legalization law single-handedly and has decided that, “before Vermont even thinks about legalizing marijuana, the state needs to think about how to crack down on drugged driving.”
[pdf-embedder url=”http://headyvermont.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2015-Fatal-Crash-Map.pdf” title=”2015-fatal-crash-map”]
If you weren’t already nervous about the influence that unelected and supposedly apolitical police have on this topic, their proposed solution is a roadside saliva test that’s been continually discussed (but not passed) in the legislature. The public safety folks and the pharma lobbyists like the idea of the saliva test so much that they already have a favorite brand called Quantasil…pretty weird that at the impaired driving day on Wednesday, there was a display of Quantasil, almost as if a pharmaceutical company was actively working with the police to get VT taxpayers to buy their technology. If roadside saliva testing is indeed so important (it’s not widely used because of unreliability and losing court challenges) than there must be other saliva testing companies being considered, right?
There is one shred of hope, if the State Police do successfully fool us into wagging the dog for a non-existent stoned driving epidemic and start swabbing your DNA, at least now the state has a new U.S. Attorney who will specifically focus on civil rights. While saliva testing may be one the civil rights issue of the future, Vermont’s new civil-rights boss might end up being too busy with the state police’s ongoing racial discrimination.
As VPR reported back in May, if you’re black in Vermont, you’re five times more likely to have your vehicle searched, even though a much higher percentage of white drivers actually have contraband.
Remind me, when is the daylong summit to address racial bias in policing?