In a 2015 WalletHub study on the strictest states on DUI enforcement and prevention, Pennsylvania placed 49th out of 51, a ranking that included the District of Columbia. In Lancaster County, driving under the influence is the most common adult crime, accounting for 30 percent of all court cases. According to data in 2014, 31.2 percent of those DUI cases involved offenders with at least one prior DUI.
Pennsylvania needs an intervention.
It’s clear that the commonwealth has a substance abuse problem. And Lancaster County is not immune.
Ninety-one of the 270 deaths from car crashes here between 2010 and 2014 were alcohol-related, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. One of the most heart-wrenching cases was that of Meredith Demko, an 18-year-old graduate of Lampeter-Strasburg High School. On July 8, 2014, she was killed in a crash caused by a drug- and alcohol-impaired driver with a suspended license.
The tragedy summed up Pennsylvania’s problem: bewilderingly weak DUI penalties. Consequently, it got the General Assembly’s attention.
Since then, state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, of West Lampeter Township, and state Rep. Keith Greiner, of Upper Leacock Township, have been leading the charge to combat DUI.
For their efforts, the local Republicans were two of the three Pennsylvania officials named MADD’s “2015 Legislators of the Year.”
Legislation co-sponsored by Smucker calls for an ignition interlock program that would be mandatory for first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol concentration of
.10 or above. The bill, authored by state Sen. John Rafferty, of Berks County, was unanimously approved by the Senate but still remains in the House.
A companion bill was authored in the House by Greiner.
“The sooner we get it done, the better we are,” he said. “There’s probably a few bills that I think leadership is interested in and concerned with getting passed, and I think that’s one of them.”
But, Greiner reminds us of a reality that has festered in Harrisburg for the past eight months: “The budget is priority.”
“That we need to get done,” he said. “And that’s taken some time out of, perhaps, this bill being completed.”
Which is unacceptable.
This has become an all-too familiar scapegoat for lawmakers around the state, and, frankly, it’s growing tiresome.
For taxpayers. For educators. For victims and their loved ones.
“There are a lot of things that are frustrating in Harrisburg, but you have to keep your head down and continue moving forward,” Greiner said.
Greiner said he is “cautiously optimistic” that DUI legislation will be passed this year, and calls his proposal the “granddaddy” of a collection of bills seeking to combat drunk driving.
One such bill, targeting repeat DUI violators, has been authored by Smucker in the Senate. The legislation would allow prosecutors to charge DUI offenders with third-degree murder — a first-degree felony — if the crash results in loss of life. And it would increase penalties for those who have two offenses within a 10-year period; the penalties would range from two to seven years of imprisonment and a fine up to $15,000.
“I think it’s important to improve our laws in regard to individuals who have multiple DUIs,” Smucker said. “We can’t allow them to continue to get behind the wheel if they’re a menace to other drivers on the road.”
We hope Smucker’s bill, coupled with the ignition interlock enforcement, will eventually provide relief to families and parents like Chris and Susan Demko.
The key word here is “eventually.”
“It takes time. It always does,” Smucker said. “(But) I think there’s a strong push to do this within the Legislature.”
Despite the delay, we applaud the efforts of Lancaster’s officials — as well as the courageous families of victims who share their story — and encourage the General Assembly to take the next steps in resolving Pennsylvania’s worsening DUI conundrum.
No matter what statistics or surveys may be published, it all comes down to what is truly paramount in these efforts: As Smucker put it, “We have seen too many lives lost here in Lancaster.”