On Melanie’s Law anniversary, a plea for tougher laws

By Katie LannanThe Lowell Sun

October 28, 2011

BOSTON — Anti-drunken-driving advocates commemorated the six-year anniversary of Melanie’s Law yesterday, urging the Legislature to expand measures to prevent drunken driving to include ignition interlocks.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving joined Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, to remember Melanie Powell, a 13-year-old pedestrian killed by a drunk driver in 2003, and to encourage the passing of an expansion to her namesake bill. The new legislation would require ignition interlocks to be installed on the cars of drunk drivers after their first offense.

Ignition interlocks require drivers to take a breath test before starting their vehicles. The car won’t start unless the driver’s blood-alcohol content is at a safe level.

State law currently requires ignition interlocks to be installed on the cars of repeat offenders.

“If the repeat offender who hit and killed Melanie had an interlock device on her car after her first drunk-driving offense, Melanie Powell would be in college today,” said Ron Bersani, Powell’s grandfather. “Please, remember Melanie and remember every victim of drunk-driving crashes.

Bersani added, “The same thing I said about Melanie’s Law six years ago, I can say today — this bill will save lives.”

The bill is sponsored by Hedlund, who is also the author of a proposal that could lift the state’s ban on free and discounted drinks in bars and restaurants.

His amendment to the casino-gambling bill could bring about the return of happy-hour promotions, which were outlawed in Massachusetts in 1984 due, in part, to concerns about drunken driving.

But Hedlund said the two proposals are not at odds because while removing happy hour did not significantly cut down on drunken driving, Melanie’s Law has.

“Nothing changed until Melanie’s Law came along,” he said. “That’s the first thing we did that had an impact in decades. This interlock bill, I think, will show as much of a dramatic decline in drunk-driving fatalities and arrests.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving national President Jan Withers called on the Legislature to pass the bill to cut down on what she called a “100 percent preventable crime.”

“We know that the average first-time offender has driven drunk before,” she said. “The most conservative studies show that drunk drivers get on the road at least 80 times before their first arrest.”

Mark Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said that to police officers, earlier installation of the interlocks was common sense.

“This, from our perspective, tends to be a blinding flash of the obvious,” he said. “There’s little sense in waiting for a subsequent arrest to put forth technology that’s waiting for us right now.”

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