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Jim Kenyon: Safe Driving Program Focuses on Learning From Mistakes

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The class consisted of four women and two men whose offenses ranged from texting while driving to causing a fatal crash due to negligent operation. Two had been busted for driving under the influence of alcohol.

I suspect that spending three hours sitting in a circle at the Hartford Probation and Parole Office talking about their transgressions and the fallout wasn’t necessarily their idea. More than likely it was a means to an end — a court-imposed requirement to regaining their driving privileges, or keeping them in the first place.

The important thing was that the state had afforded them the opportunity to learn from what had happened.

Too often the criminal justice system is about punishment. The priority — an obsession, really — is that people pay for their mistakes. Growth is not a consideration.

So when I heard that Vermont offers a statewide “safe driving program” for people dealing with driving-related offenses, I wanted to learn more.

In Windsor County, the six-hour class, spread over two evenings, is a joint effort of Hartford Probation and Parole and the Hartford Community Restorative Justice Center. (Hartford is among 20 centers across the state.)

The Hartford Restorative Justice Center’s Jonathan Tuthill, who teaches the class with help from probation officer Tara Clarke, allowed me to attend last Wednesday’s session. I agreed not to use names without first checking with participants.

The class, which gets about 40 participants a year, wasn’t what I expected. I assumed that “safe driving” meant a refresher of high school driver’s ed: How much of a cushion to keep between you and the car in front of you, and other assorted safe driving tips.

But it wasn’t about nuts and bolts. As stated in the opening paragraph of the reading materials handed out to participants, the class is designed to teach people about the “real consequences of unsafe, impaired, and/or distracted driving. You will learn how unsafe driving affects you, your family and members of the community.”

On Feb. 24, 2017, Ken Hendrick Jr., of Bridgewater Corners, was driving on Route 4 in Woodstock when he crossed the centerline and struck an oncoming vehicle. At first, Hendrick, 27, thought he had fallen asleep at the wheel. But looking back, “I still don’t know what happened,” he told the class.

Only when he was in the hospital, recovering from a smashed knee cap and fractured ribs, among other injuries, did Hendrick learn that the other driver, 76-year-old William Moeller, of Plainfield, was killed in the crash.

As part of a plea deal, Hendrick, who didn’t have a prior criminal record, served 30 days at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

“What was that like?” asked Tuthill, who has taught the class since 2015.

Hendrick shrugged. “I pretty much stayed in my cell and read books,” he replied.

After being released from prison, Hendrick moved into a Restorative Justice Center apartment in White River Junction for $300 a month. He found a job 3 miles away at Home Depot in West Lebanon.

With his driving privileges suspended, Hendrick takes Advance Transit to work, but on weekends and nights, when the free bus service isn’t operating, he walks. “He’s never asked for a ride,” said Tuthill, who, as the Restorative Justice Center’s re-entry coordinator, has gotten to know Hendrick. “He has too much pride.”

After the first safe driving session, Hendrick told me one of things he found most interesting was the varied backgrounds of participants. One woman in her late 20s had battled heroin addiction and spent time in prison for dealing. Another woman in her late 50s, who was convicted of DUI, lived at home with her mother.

“It just shows anyone can make a mistake,” Hendrick said.

After hearing Hendrick’s story, a woman talked about being charged with DUI after she’d had a “few drinks” and was seen swerving into the opposite lane. “I had reached down to pick up my dog’s toy,” she said. “I could have been the one who hit someone’s kid.”

Tuthill prodded participants to think about the decisions they made “before climbing into the car.” What caused them to be sleep-deprived? Why did they find it necessary to keep their cellphone turned on while driving? Why had they been drinking?

One woman explained that she’d been drinking at home with no intention of getting behind the wheel before a lapse in judgment caught up with her. “I was driving to the grocery store to get my kid grapes,” she said, looking back on the time that police stopped her. “Stupid me.”

To complete the class, participants must write a “safe driving plan.” Or as Tuthill puts it, “What’s going to change so you don’t end up here again?”

A strength of the class, and the restorative justice movement, in general, is that it requires offenders to think seriously about what they’ve done. What’s the impact on themselves, family, friends, their community and their victims, if any?

From what I’ve seen, going through restorative justice’s paces can be tougher on people than paying a fine. Or, in a strange way, even being locked up for a brief period. (As Hendrick discovered, a short stint can be used to catch up on reading.)

In prison, expectations are low. Unlike restorative justice, offenders aren’t pushed to confront their mistakes — and they learn how to avoid making them again. That benefits us all.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.