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UPDATE:

3-23-04

A Patriot Ledger series: Summary | PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | UPDATES

Melanie's Story

A first-hand story from the grandfather of 13-year-old victim Melanie Powell
Memories of Melanie: A photo slideshow

STORIES

State ranked among the worst in nation
Quincy judge was among first to take a hard line

GRAPHICS

PART 1
TIMELINE: How Massachusetts drunken driving law has changed
Alcohol's causes and effects
How local and state courts treat repeat drunken drivers
Busiest courts in state for drunken driving arraignments

PART 2
The cost of drunken driving

PART 3
Massachusetts fails compared with other states
Death toll from drunken driving



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Drunken driving bill
left in limbo again

Would toughen penalty if child is a passenger

For the fourth straight year, a bill that would toughen penalties for drunken drivers who put children at risk has been sent to the legislative graveyard.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, would create a mandatory sentence of at least 60 days in jail for a drunken driver who has a child age 14 or under in the car.

But the bill is in legislative limbo, and like in previous years, may never get out of committee.

The stalled legislation comes just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving has released a national report titled "Child Endangerment Report: Every Child Deserves a Designated Driver."

"Having a law that protects children when they can't protect themselves is important."

— Nicole Egan, a spokeswoman for MADD

The report, released today, examines laws on the books in other states and offers recommendations to states, including Massachusetts, that have failed to address the issue.

The group is urging Massachusetts lawmakers to consider the current stalled bill.

"As with any legislation MADD advocates, there is research behind this that shows it saves lives and prevents injury," said Nicole Egan, a spokeswoman for the organization. "Having a law that protects children when they can't protect themselves is important."

The bill is one of many anti-drunken driving measures lawmakers ignore each year.

A three-part special report on drunken driving published by The Patriot Ledger in the fall shows Massachusetts has one of the worst track records in the nation for dealing with first-time and habitual drunken drivers.

Massachusetts received a D-minus last year from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for its drunken driving laws. The only lower grade was Montana's F.

The child endangerment bill was sponsored by Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, who has filed similar legislation in the last three years, only to see the bills die in committee.

"Massachusetts is one of the few states that doesn't have this kind of penalty," said Brewer's aide, Andrea Whitman. "We think this is a good bill."

Eighteen other states have failed to enact the child endangerment law, including Connecticut, Vermont, Texas, Pennsylvania and Oregon.

Egan said the law might prevent cases such as an incident that occurred in Marshfield in October 2002 when a woman was arrested and charged with drunken driving after police observed her swerving onto the shoulder of Plymouth Avenue. Her 3-year-old daughter was in the back seat.

MADD officials, she said, have received calls from distraught parents reporting loved ones who drive drunk with a child in the car.

According to a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly two-thirds of children under 15 who died in alcohol-related crashes between 1997 and 2002 were riding with an impaired driver. And more than two-thirds of the impaired drivers were old enough to be the parent of the child who was killed.

The bill was before the Criminal Justice Committee, which failed to vote on it by last week's deadline. Instead, committee members voted to place the bill into a "study," often a tactic used to quietly kill an unpopular measure.

Hedlund couldn't be reached for comment.

Sen. Michael Morrissey, D-Quincy, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, said the bill would create a harsh mandatory sentence for what could be a first-time offender.

Also, he added, child endangerment laws already exist and could be better enforced by the Department of Social Services.

"This bill needs some help," he said. "Some circumstances need to be spelled out that would give judges some flexibility."

A child endangerment law that included a mandatory seven-day sentence would likely receive more support, he added.

Sen. Robert S. Creedon Jr., D-Brockton, who is also on the Criminal Justice Committee, said the law is flawed because it is tailored to a specific victim.

"Should we characterize the gravity of the crime by who the victim might be?" he asked. "What if you have your mother in the car, or your wife? That's equally egregious. (Drinking and driving) is something you just ought not do, regardless of who is in the car with you."

Rep. Frank Hynes, D-Marshfield, disagrees.

"It seems there is a heightened sense of responsibility when you're a parent and you're transporting a child in your car," he said. "There is a greater gravity to the behavior of that adult in that situation. The sensible view is that the standard of behavior has to be higher when an individual is in a role protecting children."

Supporters hope lawmakers will revive the bill by removing it out of study and acting on it.

"We understand the obstacles," said Whitman, Brewer's aide. "But we are hopeful we can get something out. The timing is right for this bill this session."

Dan DeLeo may be reached by

 

 

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