Demkos

Chris and Susan Demko, of West Lampeter Township, speak at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on May 9, 2017, to advocate for stricter DUI laws. They are joined by state Sen. John Rafferty (far left), Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman (left), other lawmakers and families affected by DUIs.

THE ISSUE

The state Legislature passed a bill last week to impose stricter penalties on repeat DUI offenders. As LNP’s Sam Janesch wrote: “Lawmakers and advocates from Lancaster County had lobbied hard for Senate Bill 961, which provides for felony charges against anyone with four or more DUI convictions.” The bill is on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, and he is expected to sign it.

While our lawmakers failed to address the biggest issue on their agenda last week — a path for true justice for victims of child sexual abuse — they did pass some important and meaningful pieces of legislation deserving of praise.

We have already noted the strong and necessary Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law. Today, we applaud the passage of Senate Bill 961, cracking down on drunk drivers. Pennsylvania had, so frustratingly, been one of only four states that didn’t treat multiple DUIs as a felony. But the new law, which received wide bipartisan support, establishes the state’s first felony offenses for DUI.

According to The Associated Press, the new felony offense “applies to those with a third conviction of driving with at least twice the legal limit of alcohol in their system and for anyone with fourth DUI convictions.” We would have preferred a lower threshold for felony charges, but understand the importance of compromise and not letting the bill linger in Harrisburg any longer.

The new law also sets harsher penalties — including longer mandatory jail sentences — for unintentionally causing the death of another person as part of a repeat DUI violation. Finally, it increases penalties for those who continue to drive on suspended licenses after a DUI.

All of this is incredibly necessary to protect lives and make our roads safer. In 2016, a state law passed requiring most first-time DUI offenders to have an ignition interlock device in their vehicles to check their breath for alcohol. That was a good step in the right direction, but not enough. This is a much bigger step.

According to the AP, there are about 10,000 alcohol-related crashes and 300 fatalities annually in Pennsylvania. LNP has told, over the years, the heartbreaking stories — and there are too many of them — of area families who have been shattered by drunk drivers.

We cannot forget Chris and Susan Demko’s daughter, Meredith, who was killed by a seriously impaired driver July 8, 2014. She was 18.

We cannot forget Paul and Maggie Hannagan’s two children, Charlotte and Miles, who were killed when the family’s vehicle was hit on Valentine’s Day in 2015 by a driver who was drunk, speeding and texting.

“You have to hope your kids’ death didn’t happen in vain,” Maggie Hannagan told LNP in 2016.

In early 2017, state Sen. Scott Martin of Martic Township put forth a bill — which had been been previously introduced by his predecessor, current U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker — calling for stronger penalties for individuals with more than two DUIs within a 10-year period. The bill that finally made it through Harrisburg last week was advocated by, among others, Martin, Republican Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County, Republican Rep. Keith Greiner of Upper Leacock and, crucially, Chris Demko’s group, Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving.

“This bill is going to save future lives because it’s going to focus on the repeat offenders who are the worst, who account for 40 percent of fatalities,” Chris Demko told LNP’s Janesch.

Martin added, in a news release: “Habitual drunk drivers show zero concern for other motorists, and they create a grave danger for everyone they encounter on our roadways. This legislation sends a strong message that repeat offenders will face serious consequences when they make the selfish and irresponsible decision to drink and drive.”

Martin gave credit to the families who have lost loved ones and the groups such as Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving and Mothers Against Drunk Driving — all of whom have lobbied ceaselessly to strengthen Pennsylvania’s too-weak DUI laws. “The families who have suffered unimaginable losses, selflessly turned their tragedy into something that will ultimately help save the lives of other Pennsylvanians,” Martin said. “I thank them for never giving up on the fight for tougher DUI laws.”

We couldn’t agree more. We add our thanks to those who have pushed through their devastating heartbreak to help create a safer future on Pennsylvania’s roads. The deaths of their children, of their loved ones, were absolutely not in vain.