Detroit Councilman Scott Benson is back driving his city-issued car three-and-a-half years after a public drunken driving offense landed him in jail and is reassuring residents that he now leads a sober life.
In an interview with The Detroit News, Benson said the conviction put him on the path of recovery after a long battle with alcohol addiction. He said he initially opted not to drive his city car after his license suspension was up as a “self-imposed punishment."
Benson, 48, said he’s gone through the Alcoholics Anonymous program and received counseling since the incident and is now committed to a “life of sobriety.”
“(I want) for people in general just to know that there is life after recovery and recovery is possible,” Benson said during a ride-along with a reporter in the city-owned 2008 Ford Crown Victoria that he was driving the night of his arrest. “If through this story one person gets into recovery and understands that this is not a death sentence, then I’ve helped pay another debt to society.”
On June 29, 2014, Southfield police discovered Benson passed out behind the wheel of his car at a traffic light on the southbound Southfield service drive near Eight Mile. Benson told The News he was driving from the 50th wedding anniversary party of a former boss.
Authorities said Benson’s blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit for driving.
The District 3 councilman spent 82 hours, or more than three days, in jail, had his driver’s license suspended for one year and paid close to $10,000 in fines following the incident. He also had to submit to at-home blood-alcohol level tests.
He served his jail sentence in March 2015. He said he opted not to drive his city car, in part, to earn back the trust of the residents of Detroit.
“I disappointed thousands of people,” Benson said. “No. 1, it was an embarrassment to the city of Detroit and something I don’t take lightly.”
Benson said he often took the bus to work, rode his bike or requested Uber and Lyft rides to get around.
“I embraced that change,” Benson said. “It made me a better leader; it made me a better person.”
Benson said he felt redeemed after winning re-election in November with 64 percent of the vote. He decided in December that he would begin driving his city car again.
Gregory R. McDuffee, executive director of the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority, said he sponsored Benson in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. McDuffee said he shared his own stories of recovery from alcohol addiction and guided the councilman on his journey to sobriety.
Benson accepted full responsibility for the drunken driving offense throughout the process, the city official said.
“Scott is a passionate leader,” said McDuffee, who went into Alcoholics Anonymous in 1985. “This has improved his leadership, his energy, his judgment.”
Benson said prior to the drunken driving arrest in 2014, he was a heavy drinker and often made poor decisions. He confirmed that he also received a driving under the influence conviction in 2000 while in Arkansas.
“I liked to drink,” Benson said. “It was fun to me. ... But it became too much. Alcohol began to control me and so it was just not a positive place.”
Benson’s road to recovery has improved his life both personally and professionally, he said.
The councilman said going without a car for three and a half years made him an advocate for public transportation and the regional transit authority millage that Detroit region voters rejected in 2016.
He also is now a supporter of protected bike lanes and finding a solution to high auto insurance rates in Detroit.
Detroit Council President Brenda Jones said she too advised and supported Benson on his road to recovery. She commended Benson for taking full ownership of his problem with alcohol addiction and listening to her advice.
“I think that he did what he needed to do in seeking the help that he needed to seek,” Jones said. “He took responsibility, and he was honest with himself.”
Today, Benson said he wants to be an example and help others struggling with alcoholism. He wants them to know that life after recovery is better.
“I can say that after that incident, it’s never going to happen again,” he said. “I’m allergic to alcohol at this stage in my life.”