Pennsylvania's lame laws against drunken driving

DUI checkpoints aren't enough: In Pennsylvania one person is killed in alcohol-related crashes every day, but that wasn't enough for clueless state lawmakers to take action.

IT REALLY makes you wonder.

It makes you want to look into the dull, shortsighted eyes of our lackluster lawmakers and ask, "What exactly is wrong with you?"

I'm not talking about heavy lifting on taxing and spending or budgets and pensions. We all know how weak they are in those areas.

I'm talking about simple, common-sense stuff to save lives.

For example, Pennsylvania is among a minority of states with lousy DUI laws, and repeatedly fails to adopt a law proven to reduce the mayhem that drunken driving causes.

This, despite the state's own stats showing 20 people are injured and one person killed in alcohol-related crashes here every day. That's every day.

That's 7,300 injuries, 365 deaths a year.

Yet, arguably the most effective deterrent to such carnage - a law requiring all convicted drunken drivers to use ignition interlock devices that work like Breathalyzers to prevent even starting a vehicle - has stalled in Harrisburg for years.

Pennsylvania mandates interlocks after multiple DUIs - but, unlike half the states, not after first convictions.

There's overwhelming evidence that these devices work.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says states using interlocks cut drunken-driving offenses by 67 percent.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) just published a report saying that 1.7 million drunken-driving attempts were stopped by interlocks since states starting mandating them in the 1990s.

The legislature's failure to connect these dots - even in the face of transportation and public health data showing that most convicted drunks continue driving with a suspended license - earns our state an abysmal national ranking.

Due to no interlock law upon conviction, and comparatively lenient DUI fines and sentencing, the online consumer research group Wallet Hub ranks Pennsylvania 49th in fighting drunken driving.

Some are working to change that - even while dealing with unending grief.

"We're the horror stories," says Chris Demko, of Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving, a new group whose members lost children to DUI crashes.

Demko is a Lancaster County banker. His youngest of three children, 18-year old daughter Meredith, was killed by a convicted drunken driver behind the wheel with a suspended license.

It was July 2014. Meredith was about to attend Ursinus College.

Demko tracks DUI legislation and tries to figure out why an interlock law hasn't moved in the House after passing the Senate in 2014 and again in 2015.

He's not alone.

"It seems like a no-brainer," says Maggie Hannagan, of Downingtown, who lost both her children, 19-year old Miles and 16-year old Charlotte, in a drunken-driving crash in February 2015.

She and her husband, Paul, got involved with the issue after discovering how "pathetic" our laws and punishments are for drunks who kill people.

Again, according to state Department of Transportation stats, a drunken driver kills somebody in Pennsylvania every day.

Finally, amid recent pressure, the legislature's heartless, unconscionable delay in fighting back could be ending.

The House Transportation Committee plans a vote on an interlock bill this week.

The expected action comes after MADD held a Harrisburg news conference last week, after the parent group scheduled a Capitol event this week, and after I started making calls on the issue last Wednesday. I'm just sayin'.

When I asked the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), why it's taken so long to get a simple law dozens of other states already have, he said: "I don't know."

When I asked Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Taylor (R. Philadelphia), he said "some politics" probably held it up due to lawmakers vying for credit; and, "frankly, the budget [stalemate] canceled just about everything."

Fact is there are no excuses. None. It should have passed years ago. It should be law today.

It's revenue-neutral (offenders pay for the devices), it's effective, and it can spare families future "horror stories."

Our legislature should be ashamed of its inaction. It really makes you wonder.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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