LANCASTER - Witnesses at a state Senate committee hearing Monday called for a dramatic strengthening of DUI laws, saying current statutes are too weak to stop repeat offenders who endanger everyone.
Patrick Crowley, whose 24-year-old son Liam was killed last year by a man prosecutors called the worst drunk driver in Chester County, testified that people are dying because of Pennsylvania's lax laws.
"We watched our son, Liam, die," Crowley said, reading a statement written by Liam's mother. "We listened as the incredible doctors and nurses told us that there was no hope."
Christopher Demko, whose 18-year daughter Meredith was killed in July by a driver who was intoxicated and high on heroin cautioned, "Don't let it be too late for others."
The Inquirer reported Sunday that in Pennsylvania - where one person a day on average is killed by a drunken driver - people can amass DUI arrest-after-arrest and still keep their licenses.
The article cited the cases of Villanova attorney Joseph Lawless, 63, who had five drunken driving arrests in 2011, but still had a valid license until he was sentenced - and then was given 10-day sentences on each of the offenses because the law classified him in each case as a first-time offender.
And it reported that problems are worse in Philadelphia, where Robert Taylor, 61, was given a total of just three days in jail for three DUI arrests. Prosecutors mistakenly didn't tell the judge he previously had been convicted in Delaware County in 2011.
Monday's session, at Millersville University, was a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Transportation committees.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig W. Stedman testified that Pennsylvania must address a legal loophole that allows many repeat offenders to escape serious punishment.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court ruled that until a person is convicted of a first DUI, every subsequent arrest must be considered a first offense - overturning the lawmakers' intent.
Stedman said that law must be rewritten to allow escalating punishments.
The prosecutor also noted that in 41 other states authorities have the power to pull licenses immediately after a driver fails a sobriety test. In Pennsylvania, a driver can continue driving for a year or more before facing the loss of a license.
That "would mandate rapid and certain consequents for DUI and almost immediately protect the public by swiftly taking steps to remove the DUI offender from the roads," Stedman said.
He cited a 2007 study showing the license seizures in other states resulted in a 5 percent reduction in alcohol-related fatal crashes.
"Unfortunately," he said, "Pennsylvania lags behind much of the country by requiring a conviction before suspending an offender's license."
Stedman also noted that in 31 other states people convicted of a first DUI must install interlock systems on their cars that prevent the vehicles from starting if the operator is intoxicated.
Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr., a Republican whose district includes parts of Chester and Montgomery County, is sponsoring a bill to require the interlocks for anyone convicted of a first DUI.
And he said the problems created by the 2009 Supreme Court decision might be addressed as early as this year through an amendment to an existing bill.
The only thing missing, said Sen. Lloyd K. Smucker, a Republican from Lancaster, is the courage to take action.
"Legislative solutions are at hand," he said. "We can easily add them. We must only summon the will to act, directly and decisively . . . this legislative session."
After the hearing, some relatives of drunken driving victims were skeptical the session would result in real change.
Susan Mengis, whose 21-year-old daughter was killed in 2007, said she has been crusading for seven years to strengthen Pennsylvania's DUI law.
After similar hearings, she said, there was a brief flurry of attention, and then, "nobody cares."
Glenn Ruby, whose daughter Crystal, was killed along with Mengis' daughter, wore the shirt that his daughter had planned to give him for the family's 2007 Christmas celebration.
"I'm still angry," Ruby said, explaining that drunken drivers always receive shorter sentences than the parents of the children killed. "We got life sentences."