DUI checkpoint

A DUI checkpoint is seen in this undated file photo. 

THE ISSUE

A new state law went into effect Friday requiring first-time DUI offenders with a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent or higher to install breathalyzers, known as ignition interlocks, in their vehicles for a year. The previous law only required repeat offenders to have them. Pennsylvania joins 48 other states in expanding the law to cover most first-time offenders. The state’s DUI threshold is 0.08.

Fewer people will be driving drunk in Pennsylvania. That’s the bottom-line result of this law, which was long overdue.

We needed it because ignition interlocks work.

For a 10-year period beginning Dec. 1, 2006, the devices prevented more than 65,000 attempts (of repeat offenders) to start a vehicle in Pennsylvania, according to the state’s office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

For many first-time DUI offenders, the threat of further legal trouble isn’t enough of a deterrent.

“Last year in Pennsylvania, there was an average of 10 ‘lockouts’ — meaning the device detected alcohol so the vehicle did not start — for every installed interlock device,” Brett Hambright, spokesman for the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office, told LNP staff writer Jonas Fortune.

We appreciate Gov. Tom Wolf signing this bill into law in May 2016, and we laud Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Upper Leacock Township, for pushing the bill through the state House — a process that began in late 2014.

But we’re especially grateful to people like Chris and Susan Demko, who spent two years lobbying for the legislation. Their daughter, Meredith, was killed in July 2014 by a driver who was drunk and high on heroin.

It shouldn’t have been this much work to pass a sensible piece of legislation that will save lives.

Pennsylvania’s DUI law came in 49th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in a 2015 ranking by WalletHub.

Had it not been for the Demkos, the legislation might never have seen the light of day. They were relentless, sharing their terrible story, keeping the pressure on lawmakers, refusing to let frustration deter them.

“I think at the end of the day the takeaway for us is it’s good for the state, it’s good for the citizens and there will be surely less people that will be killed as a result of DUI driving,” Chris Demko told LNP in 2016 after the governor signed the bill. “This legislation, to me, was a good starting point.”

He’s right. The county averages 1,600 DUIs a year and a quarter of them are repeat offenders, according to Hambright. Much more needs to be done.

For example, it now takes six offenses before someone faces a mandatory 30-day jail sentence for driving with a suspended license —including those suspended for DUI —under Pennsylvania law. Six strikes is simply too many. The law needs to be amended.

Increasing the mandatory sentences for DUI offenders who cause serious injuries or death, and making it a felony to have multiple DUI convictions are also steps that can and should be taken.

A 2,000-pound automobile is a lethal weapon when someone who can’t see straight sits behind the wheel. Too many families have suffered and will suffer if the laws don’t change.

“These are all horror stories,” Chris Demko said in a press conference at the state Capitol in May. He stood with about a dozen parents who lost children to impaired drivers. “We as a society cannot allow additional senseless tragedies like ours to continue.”

The Demkos are part of an organization called Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving, which advocates for stronger DUI laws. As LNP reported in May, the group is focusing on “high-risk offenders” who they say cause the majority of deaths in the state. Demko said there are four categories of those offenders: those who have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher (about two times the legal limit), repeat DUI offenders, DUI offenders with suspended licenses, and drivers impaired by drugs.

There are about 113,000 high-risk offenders in Pennsylvania, according to the group.

Pennsylvania’s DUI laws are clearly lagging and inadequate. Our lawmakers need to do their work and keep impaired drivers off the road.

Ignition interlocks for first-time offenders is a step out of the legislative dark ages for the commonwealth’s DUI laws.

The Demkos will keep pushing. Our elected officials need to stand with them before there are more suffering families to join the fight.

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