The U.S. Virgin Islands is known for its laid-back attitude toward the consumption of alcohol. Some say that attitude contributes to the attractiveness of the territory to tourists.
However, senators and members of the V.I. Police Department are concerned that that attitude might be too costly to continue.
They said as much Monday in a Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety hearing, where two bills attempting to make the territory’s roads and highways safer were on the agenda. Both bills garnered much discussion before being forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee with favorable recommendations.
A bill to increase the punishment for driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquors or controlled substances wasn’t debated because of what the bill did and did not contain.
Acting Deputy Chief of Police Operations David Cannonier, testified there were several obstacles to reducing driving under the influence in the territory.
“One such obstacle is a lack of an open-container law,” he said.
Sen. Stedmann Hodge Jr. said he was for increasing the penalty for driving under the influence. He said he had witnessed people behind the wheel so intoxicated that they “fell asleep at a red light.”
However, he said he would not support a law banning open containers because many tourists and residents enjoy having an alcoholic beverage openly and responsibly.
Cannonier said that 40 states had banned open containers in the passenger area of a vehicle and the federal government rewarded them financially.
Hodge asked why the other 10 states did not go along with the ban. Cannonier had no answer.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory suggested the bill needed reference to a tiered response to driving under the influence offenses. Many localities have specifically different punishments for repeat offenders and different punishments for different amounts of alcohol content found in the offender’s blood stream.
Sen. Javan James, sponsor of the bill, pointed out different penalties for repeat offenders were already in the code.
“Individuals engaging in this behavior must be held accountable and have a clear understanding that actions have consequences,” Cannonier said.
The other bill considered at the hearing was to appropriate funds from the District Public Road Fund to the Department of Public Works to erect “Keep Left” signage throughout the territory, establishing a “Keep Left” public information campaign and mandating that all rental agencies in the territory provide “Keep Left” signage and public information material in every rental vehicle.
Testifying for the V.I. Police Department, Lt. Isaac Porter said that from Jan. 1 of this year there has been 393 citations issued on St. Croix alone to motorists for “Failure to stay as far left as possible.” He added that two of those involved fatalities.
The most tragic was on June 23 when a head-on collision occurred on Queen Mary Highway near the Peters Rest Road intersection. A 5-year-old girl died in that crash. Also, on April 27 a motorcyclist died on North Shore Road riding in the left lane and hitting a truck head on.
Porter said the department welcomes this bill.
“This bill will not just affect tourists visiting our beautiful U.S. Virgin Islands, but it will also be a reminder to local drivers as well,” he said.
Sen. Alicia Barnes, sponsor of the bill, introduced it saying she “did not wish to legislate what should be good government policy” but she believed the situation needed “serious attention.”
On questioning from Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, officials said the signage would cost about $2 million. Officials were then questioned whether the signs could be paid for with federal funds. No definitive answer was given.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he supported any effort to “enhance the safety on the highways,” but was concerned about duplication of what was already on the books.
“We need to step up enforcement,” he said.
When questioned whether this bill duplicated anything in the V.I. Code, Senate legal counsel said no.
Sens. DeGraff, Steven Payne Sr. and Hodge voted to move the Stay Left bill forward, and Sens. Frett-Gregory and Gittens voted against it. Frett-Gregory said there was too much missing information and too many unanswered questions for her to vote favorably on the bill. Committee members Oakland Benta and Novelle Francis Jr. were absent.
There were no votes against moving the driving under the influence bill forward to the Rules and Judiciary Committee.