"This stubborn, intractable, uncompromising woman, Doris Aiken, began her unrelenting assault on NYS legislative leaders in 1980—stunningly, against all odds, her voice was heard, resulting in immediate bi-partisan legislative cooperation passage of 13 DWI reform bills that dropped drunk driving deaths 27%."
—Chris Cernick, former Assembly Special Panel for DWI reform, 12-31-2001
"The right of citizens to petition government was rarely so well exercised as in the 1980s by Doris Aiken, leader of NYS RID, to deter drunken driving. Thousands are alive today because of her prodding of government to combat this menace."
—Leslie G. Foschio, Federal Magistrate, former DMV Commissioner, 1-3-2002
“I once told a reporter that Doris was a pit bull, but if she were in charge, the budget would pass on time.”
—James Tedisco, NYS Assemblyman, 4-4-2002
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About the Author
Say what you will about Doris Aiken; she is unarguably stubborn, intractable and uncompromising. After 25 years, she remains unwilling to relent to the culture and sensibilities of the political process—choosing instead to agitate and aggravate those who disagree to the scope or tenor of her views. Nevertheless, no one can deny Doris her place in the legislative history of drunk driving reform in New York.
In 1980, when citizen Doris, began her unrelenting assault on the doors of legislative leadership, the average person arrested for drunk driving had a blood alcohol concentration level of .19—almost twice the legal limit, and the equivalent of 11 drinks consumed in an hour by a 180 pound male. Yet, as Doris was fond of pointing out, the risk of being caught and arrested was estimated to be as low as one in 2,000 drunk driving events. If caught, the driver would normally plead guilty to something else other than an alcohol-related offense and would receive a penalty that seldom involved the loss of license. And, if perchance a person was arrested and convicted, the average fine imposed in 1979 for alcohol-related offenses was $11. And worse yet, those who killed seldom faced jail. After all, drunk driving was not a crime of violence, it was an unfortunate accident. And that is where Doris Aiken drew the line. Something was very wrong with the laws in New York, and she was not going to go away until something was done to change them.
Stunningly, against all odds, her voice was heard. Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink and Senate Majority leader Warren Anderson heard her. Key legislative Chairs, like Vincent Graber, John Caemmerer and Norman Levy heard her. Elizabeth Connelly, the Chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Mental Health said “Amen”. And Senator William Smith, who tragically lost a daughter to a drunk driver, suddenly had someone to carry the message of his personal loss to the halls of the State Capitol. And change began—almost immediately. Governor Carey established a special commission on drunk driving reform, the Senate established a special task force, and the Assembly assigned a special counsel to review the existing laws and make recommendations for reform. And reform came almost immediately. In the form of unprecedented bipartisan cooperation. In 1980, plea bargaining outside of alcohol-related offenses was halted and serious incentives to take the Breathalyzer were implemented. In 1981 mandatory minimum fines and the landmark STOP-DWI Programs were put in place. In 1983 the crimes of vehicular manslaughter and vehicular assault were added to the Penal Law and court-ordered blood tests were mandated in fatal accidents where alcohol was suspected of being involved.
The results? Alcohol-related fatal crashes decreased between 1981 and 1983; crashes during “bar hours” (10 p.m.-5 a.m.) declined by 21 % between 1980 and 1983, while non-bar hour crashes increased by 6.7%; and, perhaps most notably, fatal crashes during bar hours decreased by 35% between 1980 and 1983.
And throughout this period, you could find Doris Aiken—holding vigil in the back of the Assembly Chamber, educating, agitating and cajoling lawmakers. And always speaking from the heart.
Christopher A. Cernick, Esq.
Former NYS Assembly Special Counsel on Drunk Driving Reform