Thousands in Blair struggle with transportation

In big cities like New York, you can get around on public

transportation, 24-7, with little trouble.

Get on the subway, the bus, even the ferry.

It’s different in Blair County, where it’s Amtran buses or nothing.

Most routes run once an hour. None operate before 7 a.m., or after 6 p.m., or on Sundays – and none operate far outside the Altoona-Hollidaysburg area in the center of the county.

So it’s not easy for people like Darrel Etchison Sr. of Altoona, one of 6,000 Blair Countians with a suspended driver’s license, to get around.

Etchison – originally from New York City – was at the bus platform downtown last week with his daughter to take his wife to the hospital because she

wasn’t feeling good.

He lost his driver’s license in December after getting behind on costs and fines incurred for driving with an already-suspended license.

“It’s brutal,” Etchison said, recalling the pervasiveness of public transportation in the big city, as raindrops from a brewing thunderstorm knifed in under the narrow platform canopy.

People who lose their licenses after convictions for driving under the influence – or possession of drugs, non-payment of fines, accumulation of points for “moving” violations and driving with a suspended license, need to find a way to get around.

They can drive illegally, but if they get caught, it compounds the problem.

They can take a cab, but that’s expensive.

They can walk, but that takes forever.

They can ride a bike, but that exposes them to the weather.

They can also rely on friends and family members.

“[But] that gets old very fast,” said Abbie Tate, treatment supervisor at Blair County Prison.

Jason Lee, who lost his license for 18 months after two consecutive DUIs, lives in Carson Valley, where the buses don’t run.

His mother brought him to the courthouse recently for a probation appointment.

His girlfriend can’t help because her license is also suspended.

He’s a diesel mechanic who works with his step-father about two miles from their house.

He often walks home for lunch and at the end of the day, when others who could give him a ride sit around and talk.

He also uses his bike.

It took an effort to fully realize the gravity of not being able to drive.

He tries not to impose for “extras.”

“But when I do, I’m basically begging,” he said.

“It’s serious,” Lee said of driving under the influence and its punishments. “I never realized how serious.”

Of the situation, he said, “You’re pretty much screwed.”

He’s moving to Indiana, Pa., where things are concentrated enough that transportation shouldn’t be a problem, he said.

Blair County Adult Parole and Probation opened a satellite office in Altoona this year mainly to make it easier for clients with suspended licenses from Altoona to report for tests, attend classes and do job searches, said Chief Tom Shea and Deputy Chief Cory Seymour.

They can walk, ride bikes or take the bus more easily.

It can take 2 1/2 hours to ride the bus from Altoona to Hollidaysburg, one way, depending on start time and the number of transfers needed, officials said.

Less travel hassle reduces their temptation to drive, especially those who hardly care anymore because they already face a long stretch before they can hope to regain their licenses.

Shea doesn’t want his office to be the reason for clients to be flouting suspensions.

Less travel hassle also reduces their temptation to blow off appointments and makes them more willing to participate when they get there, Shea said.

Case managers help them work through problems, sometimes setting up peer support or referring them to outside service agencies.

Some clients – including those in DUI Court, which provides bus passes – must continue to come to the courthouse.

You can see one or two a day riding or walking along Logan Boulevard, Seymour said.

The lack of discretion for license suspensions permitted in the court system is troubling to Shea, who remembers more flexibility when he was an Altoona cop decades ago.

“There has to be some humanities and common sense,” Shea said.

Of the 3,000 clients, only 10 to 20 percent are “career criminals,” he guessed.

“The majority of people just made a mistake and have problems,” he said. “You’re just adding to the problem if you take away their job and everything else.”

And it makes his job harder.

If a client lives in Tipton and continues to drive to work, sooner or later he or she is probably going to get caught, further postponing the day when he or she can drive legally.

“To me, that’s not what the law’s about,” Shea said.

That sympathy doesn’t extend to those who continue to drive drunk, Seymour said.

Laura Havens’ boyfriend, Justin, who was at a hearing for his first DUI last week, hasn’t been able to drive legally for years and will “probably never get his license,” said Havens, who was waiting outside Judge Daniel Milliron’s courtroom.

Even before the hearing, Justin wasn’t eligible for a license until 2024, Havens said.

Justin’s first problem was getting caught driving underage, she thinks.

Thus he had to wait longer than usual to qualify for his first license.

He got caught driving two weeks before he could have gotten it, she said.

Since then, there have been “thousands and thousands of dollars in fines,” she said.

He doesn’t plan to drive anymore, she said.

But he does plan to check out whether he can legally operate a scooter, she said.

He can use it for work, they hope.

He’s a roofer and can often can go directly to job sites, leaving his tools in the boss’s truck, she said.

There are advantages to living in a rural community, according to Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva.

They include “connectedness,” rural values and caring people, she said.

But there’s also “the underside” – which includes the lack of public transportation and long distances that people need to travel, she said.

“People really struggle,” she said. “We’ve had to be creative.”

The system has helped defendants access taxis, has refurbished old bikes and provided pedometers as an incentive for walking, she said.

Still, it can be massively inefficient for the defendants.

“They [just] have to surrender to it,” Kopriva said. “We find ourselves saying, ‘This is a priority, and you have to make this happen somehow.'”

And there are corollary benefits.

It can help develop healthy habits and build problem-solving skills, she said.

“But we have to be realistic,” she said. “And not set them up for failure.”

Sometimes that may mean choosing from assignments like anger management, mental health and drug and alcohol classes, if the transportation challenges make doing all three impossible, she said.

Daniel Savino Jr. was planning to plead guilty to a third DUI last week.

He had originally been charged with two more, which would have meant a total of four.

Both the additional DUIs involved him sitting in the driver’s seat of his vehicle with the engine running, after he’d chosen not to drive after drinking, he said.

In one of those cases, he was startled when an officer knocked on the window, causing his foot to shove in the clutch and the vehicle to lurch forward.

That met the criteria for DUI, he said.

The prosecution dropped the other case, he said.

He often got around by walking a lot after his first two DUIs.

He lived two miles outside Bellwood then and would walk back and forth to town.

“I spent six years in the military, so that was nothing to me,” Savino said.

He also paid people to take him places.

He drove with a suspended license twice.

Once, when stopped, he successfully argued for leniency.

He’d been doing a chore for his boss, and if he’d refused, he’d have risked losing his job, he said.

He didn’t get caught the other time.

He left his hearing in handcuffs.

He’s a union cement mason and fears that sitting in jail during the nice weather – prime earnings time – will compromise his take from unemployment insurance next winter.

Judy Rosser, executive director of the Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnership, isn’t inclined to be lenient with those convicted of DUI.

“People can make a choice not to get behind the wheel,” said Rosser, whose friend’s father was killed by a drunk driver.

When Rosser’s daughter had a panic attack that was misinterpreted as a seizure some years ago, she lost her driver’s license for three months, until a correct diagnosis gave it back.

During those months, Rosser’s daughter had to rely on buses and occasional rides from family members.

It was difficult.

But there’s a big difference between her daughter’s hardship and that of DUI perpetrators, according to Rosser.

“It wasn’t her fault,” she said.

For those who choose to drink and drive, “there’s a need to have consequences,” according to Rosser.

Suspensions are a major one, named most often, along with the financial cost, by participants in the partnership’s survey in highway safety class, as having the biggest impact, said Machel Drahnak, the partnership’s DUI coordinator.

Suspensions are a behavioral disincentive, according to Rosser.

They’re also a practical disincentive because if someone’s not driving, they can’t cause a DUI crash, she said.

“The whole idea is safety for the community,” she said.

Still, the partnership tries to minimize disruption of perpetrators’ lives by trying to “get a lot of stuff done” before PennDOT actually takes their licenses – if they have one to begin with, she said.

The delay before suspension can be about 3 1/2 months, Drahnak said.

The court system is also adjudicating DUI cases faster – within three months, instead of a year – reducing the likelihood of multiple offenses and thus the likelihood of compound suspensions, according to Drahnak.

Like the county probation office, the partnership relocated recently to ease travel problems.

When it was created as a nonprofit from the former Blair County Drug & Alcohol agency, it moved to Route 764 near Blue Knob Auto, which wasn’t on a bus route because there was nothing else available to rent.

It has since moved to Fairway Drive, which is on a route.

Law enforcement experts long believed that a punitive “cocktail” – fines, a license suspension, the perpetrators’s name in the newspaper, community service and other measures – was the best deterrent for DUI perpetrators, said C. Stephen Erni, executive director of the Pennsylvania DUI Association.

“Let’s give them something of everything,” was the thought, Erni said.

But experts discovered that loss of license can cause the loss of a job, and – spiral-fashion – even the loss of a home, with negative consequences for the perpetrator’s family, he said.

Sixty-two percent of those with suspended licenses were driving anyway, Erni said.

That would seem to argue for leniency, to prevent the downward spiral and in recognition of the great number of those who flouted the prohibition.

The problem was, however, that a third of the 62 percent who drove had been drinking.

The solution – one that allows perpetrators to continue to function normally in their jobs but protects society from the drinking and driving – is the ignition interlock, a device that requires the operator to blow into it and register an alcohol level of less than the equivalent of a single drink before the vehicle will start, according to Erni.

Forty-seven states, including Pennsylvania, allow the device for repeat offenders.

Seventeen – not including Pennsylvania – also allow it for first-timers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is encouraging it, as is the association.

There’s legislation in the works that could have it in Pennsylvania by the fall, in time to prevent a loss of federal highway safety funds.

It should have been available to first-time offenders years ago, but Pennsylvania tends to be reactive in matters of highway safety, Erni said.

It could come sooner in Blair County through the Partnership, according to Rosser.

That would make Blair the third county in Pennsylvania to allow it for first-time offenders.

Interlocks are a “behavior modification tool,” Erni said.

The vast majority of perpetrators appreciate the opportunity it gives them to drive legally again, he said.

The device records the user’s blood alcohol level and also failed attempts to drive.

Last year, interlocks enabled users to drive 50 million “sober miles,” he said.

Interlocks have also stopped “thousands” from driving drunk, he said.

Four-hundred and four people died in Pennsylvania from drunk driving crashes in 2012.

About half of that number was the drunk drivers themselves, he said.

That doesn’t take into account the “minor” injuries that victims may feel 15 or 20 years later, he said.

DUI “creates a lot of havoc, a lot of hardships, a lot of pain,” Erni said.

Amtran General Manager Eric Wolf is an advocate for his service but said he can’t argue that it’s convenient like the one in Pittsburgh where buses ran often enough that he didn’t need to check a schedule when he went out.

If they missed one, another would be coming soon, he knew.

In Altoona, if you’re a little late, you need to wait an hour – provided the one you missed wasn’t the last one for the day.

And in Altoona, if your work schedule doesn’t synch with the bus timetable, you might need to get to your job 45 minutes early – if you don’t want to be 15 minutes late, he said.

Wolf would like to provide service that started earlier, ended later and was more frequent.

But with ridership as it is here, it’s hard to justify, he said.

Driving is so “ingrained” in this area’s culture that many DUI perpetrators are nonplussed when they need to consider other forms of transportation, according to Assistant Public Defender Jason Imler.

And while some are philosophical about losing the privilege, some are devastated, he said.

One who was not devastated rides his bike from Tyrone to Altoona and Hollidaysburg in summer and winter, in rain and snow.

“In the summer, he’s sweating,” Imler said of this individual, whom he didn’t name. “In the winter, he’s freezing.”

It’s part of his “penance to society,” Imler said.

His effort goes a long way with judges and prosecutors.

“He has to be here [at the courthouse], and he gets here,” Imler said. “This guy really answers the call.”