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Turning shame into a learning experience

Salmon wants fellow DUI offenders to open up about how it affected their lives

BELLOWS FALLS—On Nov. 13, 2009, State Auditor Thomas Salmon was arrested in Montpelier for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).

The experience has prompted the former Bellows Falls resident and potential U.S. Senate candidate to speak out about his DUI arrest and to inspire other Vermonters who have been arrested for the offense to talk candidly about it.

According to police reports, Salmon was stopped for failing to use a turn signal. Salmon failed a field sobriety test and had a blood alcohol level of 0.086 percent, just over the Vermont legal limit of 0.08.

Police said that Salmon admitted to officers that he had several glasses of wine at a party before getting behind the wheel. It was his first offense.

Even though he was a prominent state official, Salmon sought no special treatment.  He pleaded guilty, paid a $500 fine and $376 in court costs, and had his license suspended.

Like many first time offenders, he went through Vermont’s Drinking Driver Rehabilitation Program, known as Project CRASH. In Vermont, those individuals whose privilege to drive is suspended due to an alcohol related offense are required to successfully complete the program before their licenses are reinstated.

The CRASH program is designed to provide information to help the individual understand clearly how alcohol, and other drugs, affect behavior and driving skills so an individual can prevent trouble in the future.

Salmon said that he was lucky that the only harm stemming from his DUI arrest was to his reputation, and that the CRASH program forced him to confront his relationship with alcohol.

“It’s been a very humbling and educational year,” said Salmon. “I completed CRASH a year ago with 19 others. I chose the ‘no use’ plan and have not had alcohol since. I have gotten very used to life without it and [alcohol] doesn’t really fit in the elected official tool kit.”

The campaign, tentatively titled “Prevent DUI VT 2011,” is aimed at making Vermonters see the faces behind the names in the police log.

“Some may have been having a problem with alcohol and it made them get help,” said Salmon. “For me, the DUI may have been the best thing that ever happened to me, as it forced me to get real and take a hard look at things. It does change you. If we can engage Vermonters with prior DUIs to talk, we may be able to get more accomplished as a people.”

Salmon wants Vermonters to realize that “people that get a DUI are people like you and I, not the dramatic criminals that people like to imagine live in another place. Nobody is perfect. We are humans that fail and succeed every day of our life.”

He added that “it takes a long time to shake off a DUI, because we feel like second-class citizens. It takes time to heal and put this stuff behind.”

While the focus has been on toughening DUI laws, Salmon said he believes that “we have a unique opportunity to take an issue like this that is very hot — reducing DUIs, and their personal and public damage — in a new and thoughtful way. Government is well intentioned, but it can’t fix everything.”

For now, Salmon is asking people to share their stories via his Facebook page or send them to bfsalmon@yahoo.com. He said he hopes that people won’t be afraid to open up about the subject.

“The ‘sharing stories’ idea may be too taboo and may die because people wish to stay private,” he said. “Bear in mind, there may be folks who have had a DUI that want to keep it locked away from everyone, or try to.”

“It would be great if some of those people felt safe to come forward,” Salmon added. “I got that sense from some people at CRASH that is was a big secret they kept from everyone they could, which made my story so ironic to those that recognized me in their class.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #87 (Wednesday, February 9, 2011).

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