OPED: We can improve DUI laws in Pa.

Elaine and Paul Miller
Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving

In the early morning hours of April 27, 2013, the Loganville Volunteer Fire Co. was dispatched to assist with a crash on Interstate 83 in southern York County. Our son, Loganville Fire Chief Rodney Miller, responded to the call as he had done dozens of times before.

The names of Zachary Sweitzer and Rodney Miller, both killed by DUI drivers, are seen on bricks laid at the Memorial Garden in Harrisburg.

As he proceeded to close the exit to provide a safe landing for the medical helicopter coming to assist the crash victim, a three-time repeat DUI (driving under the influence) offender with a history of hit-and-run drove onto the berm of the highway, striking Rodney, throwing him 130 feet from the point of impact.

The driver immediately left the scene. We later learned the initial crash victim was also an impaired driver. Immediately thereafter we were exposed to the reality of Pennsylvania’s inadequate DUI laws and the resulting tragedies that continue to this day.

Pennsylvania is consistently ranked one of the most lenient states in the nation for DUI laws, including fifth-most-lenient for criminal DUI penalties and the most lenient for driving-under-suspension penalties. The magnitude of the problem is shown by a 10-year average of the following Pennsylvania data:

  • 12,300 impaired crashes resulting in 9,000 injuries and 333 deaths annually.
  • 10,000+ individuals were convicted of their second or greater DUI.
  • 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. Studies indicate this high-risk group is responsible for up to 20 percent of fatal DUI crashes.

Our state legislators have an opportunity to enact a common-sense law that attacks these high-risk DUI offenders who are responsible for the deaths and injuries of too many innocent individuals across our state. Senate Bill 961 has been passed by the Senate and is awaiting consideration in the House Judiciary Committee.

Highlights of SB 961 include:

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 their prior DUI history. SB 961 creates a felony offense for DUI offenders committing their third DUI offense if their BAC is .16 or greater.

Creates a felony offense for DUI offenders committing their fourth DUI offense regardless of their prior history. This will result in longer sentences, thereby keeping the worst offenders off our roads. It should be noted there are hundreds of individuals arrested annually for a fourth or greater DUI offense.

Increased penalties for repeat DUI offenders who injure and kill while driving impaired. A DUI offender is currently subject to a 3-year minimum sentence for homicide by vehicle, regardless of their prior DUI history. SB 961 would increase the minimum sentence to five years if the offender was convicted of a prior DUI and to seven years if convicted of two or more prior DUIs.

SB 961 targets the high-risk individuals who continue to drive illegally on a DUI-related suspended license. Many ignore the option to drive legally via an ignition interlock/occupational license. Currently the penalties are a $500 fine w/60-day sentence (generally “house arrest”) regardless of prior offenses. For those who continue to drive illegally, SB 961 would increase the fines and length of sentence for second and third convictions with a DUI-related suspended license.

It’s important to note that all DUI offenders are provided education and assessment/counseling for addiction/abuse. Those who re-offend must be held accountable for their deliberate choices to continue driving impaired.

Those who believe a re-offender’s rights should supersede the rights of the rest of us should talk to two of our Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving (PAPAID) families. Liam Crowley from Chester County was killed by a seven-time DUI offender with a suspended license and no insurance. (His crash occurred only two hours before Rodney was struck and killed.) David Cook, a former Marine and father of three from Beaver County, was killed by a repeat DUI offender with a suspended license and no insurance.

High-risk offenders are driving on the same highways we all drive on every day. Increased penalties, including incarceration, are the only practical way to keep the rest of us safe from chronic offenders. To do nothing will result in more innocent lives lost and more families coping with the tragic loss of a loved one.

You can help by contacting your state representative to ask for their support of SB 961. Studies show that two out of three people will be involved in a DUI crash during their lifetime, so please don’t think that a DUI offender will not cause harm to you or your family — like those who took Rodney’s life and the life of Zac Sweitzer (also a Loganville volunteer firefighter), who was killed by an impaired driver Thanksgiving morning 2008 as he was going home for the holiday.

These tragedies impacted not only our families but the entire surrounding community they served.

Elaine and Paul Miller

Co-founders, PAPAID

Elaine and Paul Miller

— Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving (PAPAID) is a grass-roots organization of parents across Pennsylvania who have lost children to impaired drivers, whose mission is to prevent additional senseless tragedies by improving Pennsylvania’s ineffective DUI and DUID laws.

For more information on SB 961, contact your legislator or visit www.papaid.org.