New law will strengthen communication between drivers with autism and law enforcement

 

STATE HOUSE — A new law sponsored by Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro and Sen. Victoria Gu will create a voluntary “Blue Envelope Program” for drivers with autism.

The legislation (2024-H 7040A, 2024-S 2481A), which was signed into law last week after passage by the General Assembly, requires the administrator of the Division of Motor Vehicles, in consultation with the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, to develop and institute a “Blue Envelope Program” to enhance effective communication between a police officer and a person with autism spectrum disorder, using best practices from other states.

“Just because an individual is on the autism spectrum does not make them incapable of navigating daily life, including being able to drive a vehicle. The situation that tends to arise though is a difficulty in communicating with law enforcement if the individual is pulled over for speeding or for another traffic infraction. This law will help law enforcement recognize the situation, allowing them to do their job while also being respectful of the needs of the individual with autism,” said Representative Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly).

Said Senator Gu (D-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown), “Traffic stops are stressful for a lot of people and people on the autism spectrum may not respond to a police officer the way that officer might expect, leading to a misunderstanding or a situation that can escalate and become dangerous. As a solution, states like Connecticut and New Jersey have created the blue envelope program to aid the communication between an officer and someone who is on the autism spectrum. This law aims to build our own version of this program, one that incorporates best practices from other states and the input of Rhode Island stakeholders.”

The issue was brought to the attention of the legislators by a constituent in high school, who learned about Blue Envelope programs as part of his research for his senior project.

“During that time, I learned I have autism,” said Toby Silva, a student at Westerly High School who proposed the legislation to Representative Azzinaro and Senator Gu. “Then I learned that having autism is the reason that I sometimes do unexpected things. I wanted to make Rhode Island a safer place for other neurodivergent people who may also behave in unexpected ways. I am grateful to Representative Azzinaro and Senator Gu for working with me on my idea to write and pass a law that will help neurodivergent drivers and the police work together to stay safe. I am thrilled that Rhode Island is joining the many other states with the Blue Envelope initiative.”

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder will be able to opt into the program if they so choose and it will not be mandatory.

“Toby had a great idea for a project and was involved from start to finish. The legislative process can be long, but he was determined to make a difference and he was instrumental in bringing this initiative that will make communities safer across the state across the finish line,” said Chief Paul J. Gingerella of the Westerly Police Department. “We’re proud of the work he, Representative Azzinaro and Senator Gu have done and we’re happy to announce that Westerly will be rolling out a Blue Envelope program toward the end of summer.”

Connecticut and several other states, including New Jersey have had similar programs for many years. Central Falls, Cranston and Massachusetts has also recently instituted the program.

New Jersey gives an example of how Rhode Island’s program might work. In New Jersey, drivers with autism spectrum disorder may choose to opt into a program in which they would carry a blue envelope in their glove box containing a copy of their driver’s license, vehicle registration, insurance details and an emergency contact card. The envelope also provides clear instructions to drivers on how to navigate a traffic stop and interact with law enforcement officers in a safe manner. During a traffic stop they can hand this envelope to the officer, who is trained on the program and best practices for engaging with neurodivergent individuals during traffic stops.

 

 

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