The champions of Melanie’s Law hail its successes, but they acknowledge there is a long way to go.
Figures show that Melanie’s Law is making the state’s roads safer: 3,500 people with a track record of driving drunk will be unable to start their cars today without first blowing a clean, sober breath into a tube to unlock their ignition.
Here’s another: 33 fewer people died in drunken driving crashes in Massachusetts in 2006, the first full year the law’s tougher penalties were in place, than the 186 who died two years earlier – an 18 percent drop.
But statistics are tricky things.
Like this one: Police now arrest drunken drivers at a pace of 50 a day compared with 37 the year before passage of Melanie’s Law.
Five years after Marshfield teen Melanie Powell died after being hit by a drunken driver, and nearly three years after Gov. Mitt Romney signed Melanie’s Bill and helped shed the state’s reputation as a pushover on drunken driving, the law’s champions both hail its successes and say that more still can, and should, be done.
Ron Bersani marked Friday’s anniversary of his granddaughter Melanie’s death by publicly calling for more action by the state.
Bersani, a Marshfield resident, said court-ordered treatment for drunken drivers should be expanded and paid for through a 5-percent sales tax on alcohol. The same proposal died in the legislature this year.
He also said the Breathalyzer devices Melanie’s Law required in the cars of repeat offenders be made mandatory for first-time drunken drivers as well.
The law has been “incredibly effective” so far, Bersani said, then pointed by way of comparison to the slow, steady successes in the campaign against smoking.
“It had to get to the point where people were so disgusted that drastic changes were made,” he said. “Remember, we’re just three years in – we have a long way to go.”
Is law tough enough?
The percentage of convicted drunken drivers refusing breathalyzer tests when pulled over has fallen steadily since 2005, according to records kept by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. In hopes of cutting down on weaker prosecutions, Melanie’s Law lengthened license suspensions for repeat offenders who refuse the tests.
Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said one flaw in the law has allowed defendants with multiple pending drunken driving charges to bundle them together in court to avoid mandatory jail terms and shorten how long their license will be suspended.
But Cruz credits the law for heightening public concern over drunken driving. And he said that just this week he took advantage of a provision that allows prosecutors to seize cars from drivers with four or more convictions and auction them, using proceeds to finance awareness campaigns and law enforcement efforts.
The harsher jail terms for repeat offenders under the law still depend heavily on which court is trying a case, Cruz said. And he argued that a 5-year cap on sentencing for offenders with five or more convictions does not go far enough.
“If you have a 10 (convictions), maybe you should get 10 years. There needs to be a bigger hit for the true professional drunk drivers who continue to drink and drive and put all of us at risk,” Cruz said.
But Braintree defense attorney Russell Matson, who has handled hundreds of drunken driving cases, said the “penalties are so severe” for repeat-offenses that he is now more inclined to take such cases to trial instead of pursuing a deal with prosecutors.
Second-time offenders face mandatory in-patient alcoholism treatment and a possible 21/2 year jail term. Sentencing guidelines get progressively harsher up to a fifth offense, which carries a mandatory minimum 2-year sentence.
“It certainly hasn’t hurt business,” Matson said.
Rachel Kaprielian, the state registrar of motor vehicles, said one incremental and easily overlooked success is that 174 repeat-offenders have met rigorous standards in the law for the ignition interlock devices to be removed from their vehicle. New ones are being installed at a pace of 140 a month.
David DeIuliis, spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Melanie’s Law has stirred passions to end drunken driving in Massachusetts like never before. Not long ago, the state received a D- from MADD in a state-by-state ranking of drunken driving laws.
“I can’t ever remember people paying this much attention to the drunken driving issue around here,” DeIuliis said.
John P. Kelly may be reached at email@example.com.