Interstate finger-pointing after deadly crash
Case underscores high stakes of driving record systems
It seems well established that Volodymyr Zhukovskyy drove the truck that killed seven motorcyclists in the White Mountains last weekend, but what is less clear why he still had a license to drive it.
The deadly crash has opened up a rift between state transportation officials in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and also spurred a review of the systems used by the Bay State’s Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Zhukovskyy is 23 but he has already lived many hard years, struggling with alcohol, heroin, and cocaine abuse, according to the Boston Globe, which interviewed the former director of a rehab center in Pennsylvania where Zhukovskyy stayed for three months.
A native of Ukraine, Zhukovskyy faces seven charges of negligent homicide. While he sits in jail in New Hampshire and faces possible deportation, reporters have scoured his cross-country criminal record. Among the findings, an arrest video from Texas where police found a crack pipe on a hepped-up Zhukovskyy. He was busted in Ohio for driving on a suspended license, and knocked for a lane violation in Iowa. Then on May 11, in East Windsor, Connecticut, the West Springfield resident was arrested and charged with intoxicated driving.
Erin Deveney, who had served in the Patrick administration and was Gov. Charlie Baker’s registrar of motor vehicles, resigned her post in the wake of Saturday’s crash, but Massachusetts officials also claimed Connecticut had erred in the lead-up to the tragedy.
“Because the information came in a manner that was not consistent with the guidelines, the automatic suspension did not get triggered, and the information needed to be processed manually, which had not been done at the time of this accident,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Wednesday, vowing to get to the bottom of what went wrong procedurally. “There are seven beautiful lives lost in a very very tragic accident. We take our responsibilities very seriously, and we put in place a process to undertake a very deep review and make sure we’re doing our jobs for the people of this Commonwealth.”
The story is at once painfully violent – cutting short the lives of bikers in the Jarheads MC club in a fiery wreck – and mind-numbingly bureaucratic. It is also a scandal unfolding while Baker is overseas in England. Addressing reporters after a meeting of the Governor’s Council on Wednesday, Polito demonstrated a command of the facts, at least as Massachusetts officials see them.
Tony Guerrera, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, said his department followed the law, and “it’s unfortunate what happened in Massachusetts, [but] that’s on them, unfortunately, in regards to reaction time,” according to the Hartford Courant. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators seems to agree, confirming that Connecticut followed the “established process.”
The RMV of today is different than it was when Baker took office. Only about a year ago, the RMV swapped out its ancient computer system for a new one capable of handling the federal government’s REAL ID requirements. There was another recent change to the RMV’s systems that may have some passing relevance as officials try to sort out how the recent tragedy could have been prevented. Three years ago, Baker signed a law repealing an old War on Drugs statute that automatically suspended the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug crimes that are completely unrelated to driving – such as simple possession. The repeal law was heralded as a way of removing an expensive hurdle to people suffering from addiction so they can get their lives back on track.
Taking away someone’s driver’s license can condemn them to joblessness and economic ruin, but giving someone a license has consequences too. Traffic fatalities nationwide numbered 40,000 for the third straight year in 2018, according to the National Safety Council.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are addressing the issue of dangerous driving right now in two very different ways. After both the House and Senate passed bills that would outlaw use of handheld phones by drivers, a small group of lawmakers has begun negotiating a final version to send to the governor’s desk. Also, on Thursday, Senate President Karen Spilka referred to the Senate Ethics Committee a matter involving one of her fellow Democrats, Brockton Sen. Michael Brady.
These are all disparate developments, but there is a common thread about the danger, and even lethality, of motor vehicles, and how officials get a handle on that.