On a sunny July afternoon in West Lampeter Township, our beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Meredith, was killed by a repeat DUI offender well-known by the police who was drunk, high on heroin and driving on a suspended license at the time of the crash. Immediately thereafter, we were exposed to the reality of Pennsylvania’s inadequate DUI laws and the resulting tragedies that continue to this day.
The magnitude of the problem is shown by the following Pennsylvania data:
— There are 12,300 impaired crashes that result in 9,000 injuries and 333 deaths annually (10-year average).
— 10,000-plus individuals were convicted of at least their second DUI in 2016.
— Repeat DUI offenders are responsible for approximately 40 percent of all DUI-related fatalities.
— 70,000 to 105,000 individuals continue to drive illegally on a DUI-related suspended license.
— In Lancaster County alone, there are 494 impaired crashes that result in 15 deaths and 351 injuries on an annual basis (10-year average). These crashes occur on the roads that we all drive every day.
— Pennsylvania is consistently ranked as one of the most lenient states for DUI laws, including fifth-most lenient for criminal DUI penalties and the most lenient for driving-under-suspension penalties.
Today, state legislators have an opportunity to enact a law that attacks high-risk DUI offenders who are responsible for far too many deaths and injuries across our state. Sen. John Rafferty, a Republican whose district is in Chester, Berks and Montgomery counties, recently introduced Senate Bill 961, which was amended to include Sen. Scott Martin’s DUI felony bill. SB 961 has passed the Senate and is awaiting consideration in the House Judiciary Committee.
SB 961 targets repeat DUI offenders who continue to drive impaired. Pennsylvania is one of only four states that do not classify repeat DUI offenses as a felony, regardless of an offender’s prior DUI history. SB 961 would create a felony offense for DUI offenders committing their fourth DUI offense, which will have the effect of longer sentences, thereby keeping the worst offenders off the road. There are hundreds of individuals arrested annually for a fourth or greater DUI offense.
SB 961 would also increase penalties for repeat DUI offenders who injure and kill while driving impaired. Today a repeat DUI offender is subject to no more than a three-year minimum sentence for homicide by vehicle while DUI, which is the same minimum sentence for a first-time DUI offender. SB 961 would increase the minimum sentence to five years if the offender was convicted of a prior DUI, and to seven years if the offender was convicted of two or more prior DUIs.
SB 961 also targets individuals who drive with a DUI-related suspended license. Many individuals ignore the suspension and the option to drive legally via an ignition interlock/occupational license. Studies indicate that this high-risk group is responsible for up to 20 percent of fatal DUI crashes. Currently, these offenders are only subject to a $500 fine/60-day sentence (generally served at home), regardless of prior offenses. SB 961 would increase penalties for those who continue to drive illegally by increasing the length of sentence and the fine for second and third offenses.
It needs to be noted that all DUI offenders are provided education and assessment/counseling for addiction/abuse. Individuals who then choose to reoffend must be held accountable for their deliberate decisions to drive impaired and risk the safety of others. Those who believe that SB 961 is too harsh for these high-risk reoffenders should talk to some of the families in our group, including two families who lost a child within a few hours of each other. Liam Crowley, of Chester County, was killed by a seven-time DUI offender, and Fire Chief Rodney Miller, of York County, was killed in the line of duty by a three-time DUI offender with a history of hit-and-run.
Unfortunately, increased penalties, including incarceration, are the most practical way to lower the risks of repeat DUI-related tragedies. To do nothing will result in more preventable deaths and injuries.
The citizens of Lancaster County helped us in having Lancaster County’s state legislators focus on this problem after our tragedy, and today we are much closer to having a law passed that will address high-risk offenders who are responsible for too many tragedies on our roads. Please help make Pennsylvania roads safer — contact your state representative and request their support of SB 961.
For more information, visit our website, papaid.org.
Studies show that 2 in 3 people will be involved in a DUI crash during their lifetime. Please don’t think that a DUI offender will not cause harm to you or your family, like the one who killed our beautiful daughter that sunny July afternoon.
Chris and Susan Demko are co-founders of Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving, a grass-roots organization of parents who have lost children to impaired drivers. Its mission is to improve Pennsylvania’s DUI and driving-while-under-the-influence-of-drugs laws.