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January 4, 2001 - Doctors Treat Drunken Drivers Every Day, Committee Told

One doctor tells members of the Rhode Island Highway Safety Coalition that confidentiality laws and fear of lawsuits discourage doctors from reporting drunken-driving cases to the police.

PROVIDENCE - Emergency-room doctors and nurses say they treat drunken drivers all the time but they don't alert authorities because of confidentiality laws and the fear of lawsuits.

"One physician summed it up best when he said it's almost a daily occurrence," said Dr. Michael J. Mello, a Miriam Hospital emergency-room physician and co-director of the Injury Prevention Center.

"I think this is a problem," Mello told fellow members of the Rhode Island Highway Safety Coalition yesterday. Fixing the problem has become an urgent matter following a Dec. 20 state Supreme Court decision, which prohibits prosecutors from using alcohol or drug tests taken without consent in felony cases.

Governor Almond is calling for the General Assembly to pass legislation that directly addresses the court's ruling. "Where there is evidence of drunken driving, law enforcement officials should be able to seek a search warrant to obtain a blood test wherever it is constitutionally permissible," he said.

Almond also wants to make it easier for medical workers to tell authorities about drunken drivers. "We need to remove the barriers to obtaining blood tests and other evidence from health-care professionals," the governor said.

Lawmakers are weighing proposals that would allow doctors to notify either the police or the state Division of Motor Vehicles when they treat impaired drivers.

Yesterday, Mello said preliminary results of a survey show that doctors are reluctant to notify police because they don't want to violate doctor-patient confidentiality laws and they don't want to get drawn into legal proceedings.

"We have all dealt with the court system, and no one wants to go before trial lawyers," who often make impossible demands about blood sample procedures, Mello said. But preliminary results show that at least two-thirds of doctors are willing to notify the Division of Motor Vehicles' medical review board when they treat a driver who is impaired by alcohol, Mello said.

Doctors would fill out a form and send it to the DMV medical board, which would have the power to revoke a driver's license, he said. Doctors would thereby avoid the court appearances that can accompany criminal proceedings, he said. Connecticut has had a similar system since 1996, Mello said. "It's something we could easily do here," he said.

But other coalition members urged caution. William D. Ankner, director of the state Department of Transportation, asked whether some Connecticut residents are not seeking medical attention when they are intoxicated because they fear losing their license.

Also, several coalition members said it's not enough to just punish drunken drivers the state must also expand treatment programs. Cathy Fanning, nurse manager at the Rhode Island Hospital Emergency Department, said her department treats more than 300 intoxicated people per month. "For some, we can find treatment, but for others, they go back on the street," she said.

David Russell, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said, "We need more money for treatment facilities. Otherwise, it will fail because there's no place to go."

State Rep. Peter T. Ginaitt, a Warwick Democrat and coalition member, plans to submit a bill that would require health-care workers to notify police when they treat a drunken driver involved in a serious crash. The bill would provide those doctors and nurses with immunity from civil liability, he said.

After yesterday's meeting, Ginaitt said he wasn't surprised that doctors are reluctant to report drunken drivers to police, and he is willing to amend his proposal. "I may submit the bill as it stands and open it up to dialogue," he said.

While the court decision has spurred discussion about drunken driving, the Traffic Safety Coalition is still focused on its No. 1 priority: a bill that would allow police to pull drivers over for failing to wear a seat belt. Now, motorists can only be fined for seat-belt violations if they're stopped for other reasons.

A similar proposal failed to pass the legislature last year, but Almond is pushing for it again, saying seat-belt use would increase by 12 to 15 percent. Ginaitt, a rescue lieutenant in the Warwick Fire Department, also urged passage, saying, "As a practitioner on the streets, I know lives will be saved and injuries will be avoided."

In all automobile accident cases it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the accident in question, and to enable physicians or other expert witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries. If you or a loved one is a victim of an automobile accident involving a drunk driver, call now at or CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT A SIMPLE CASE FORM. The initial consultation is free of charge, and if we agree to accept your case, we will work on a contingent fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if there is a monetary award or recovery of funds. Don't delay! You may have a valid claim and be entitled to compensation for your injuries, but a lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations expires.

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