Parents who lost son to drunken driver push for tougher DUI laws in Pa.

| Sunday, March 20, 2016, 10:30 p.m.

Talking about March 27, 2008, doesn't get any easier for Debby and Ken Iwaniec.

But time and time again, they will tell the story of what happened that day, when an intoxicated driver killed their son, 24-year-old Pennsylvania State Trooper Kenton Iwaniec, in a head-on collision on Route 41 in Chester County as he headed home from the barracks.

“When you come from a situation like this, you're always searching for a way you can make a difference,” said Debby Iwaniec from her longtime home in Ligonier. “We never wanted Kenton's life to be taken in vain.”

So they describe the crash, and the empty seat at their dinner table, at victim impact panels in front of drunken driving offenders. They attend rallies in Washington, D.C., and host an annual memorial run in April to raise money to purchase Breathalyzers for police departments.

They recently signed on to a new advocacy organization, PA Parents Against Impaired Driving, or PA PAID. About a dozen families who lost a loved one to a drunken driver are members.

Their mission is to get the state legislature to pass tougher DUI laws and call out the state for having some of the weakest penalties in the country. Alcohol-related crashes made up 28 percent of all traffic fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2014, accounting for 333 deaths.

Kenton Iwaniec dreamed of serving others, his mother said. So they will tell the story again.

“His ultimate career choice was to reach out and save lives,” Iwaniec said. “We're hoping we can continue to do that in his name.”

PA PAID will hold its first news conference Tuesday in the Capitol Media Center in Harrisburg. The immediate goal is to secure passage of Senate Bill 290, which would require an ignition interlock device for every driver convicted of DUI.

Chris Demko, the group's founder, almost immediately became an active voice for strengthening drunk driving penalties after his daughter Meredith, 18, was killed in 2014 in a crash in Lancaster County.

The intoxicated man who was behind the wheel of the other car had a history of driving while drunk, a suspended license, and had heroin in his system. Weeks after the crash, Demko and his wife, Susan, penned an open letter to the community in which they asked for support on laws like the ignition interlock bill.

But the political process has not matched their urgency, and the bill hasn't passed both chambers in a session. Demko and other parents who have tried to effect change in Harrisburg have run into walls, where one chamber passes the bill and the other does not, or the bill leaves a committee without getting a floor vote.

Demko decided to start PA PAID in an effort to bring more attention to the issue.

“Many of these bills have been introduced in previous sessions,” Demko said. “Nothing ever happens. We're asking leadership in the Senate and House to focus on DUI and create effective and comprehensive laws addressing the issue. That's the real ask.”

Pennsylvania has weak DUI laws compared to other states, Demko said. Here, ignition interlocks are required after second and subsequent DUI offenses. But 39 states have some sort of first-offense ignition interlock penalty, according to MADD. The group's statistics show the number of drunken driving deaths dropped by as much as 20 percent in Arkansas to 50 percent in Arizona.

Under current law, first-time DUI offenders who have a blood alcohol concentration of between 0.08 percent and 0.10 percent do not have their license suspended. They receive a mandatory six-month probation sentence among other penalties.

Demko sees strength in numbers to speed the legislative process toward passage.

“When you have 10 families sitting there, and they've all lost children to DUI, it's a little bit more powerful than just one,” he said. “One's powerful, but 10? You look at how big the issue is, and how many people have lost children.”

His efforts are tireless, contacting media statewide in the lead-up to the news conference and connecting with other families through support networks. They share their stories and find common themes, like drivers who had suspended license, or were on drugs in addition to being drunk at the time of the crash.

Demko says they also share a passion for making changes to DUI laws.

“We don't want other people to go through it,” he said.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, said he thinks this session the bill will see its way to the governor's desk. It unanimously passed the Senate in September. The House Transportation Committee has it on the calendar for its Monday meeting.

Ignition interlocks require a breath test before starting a vehicle, prohibiting drunken driving. The defendant pays the cost of the device.

Rafferty said the method is effective at prohibiting drunk driving, while also allowing offenders to still drive — when they're sober.

“It's a chance for those who are first-timers stopped for DUI to receive the ignition interlock, to let them continue to earn a paycheck and support their families,” Rafferty said.

More than 6,800 people in Pennsylvania have ignition interlock devices, according to MADD. They've stopped nearly 463,000 incidents of drinking and driving from October 2003 through the end of 2015.

The bill has support from MADD and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

Supporters of the proposal note how often crashes are caused by drivers who have suspended licenses, or are repeat offenders. MADD says 50 percent to 70 percent of drivers with suspended licenses still drive, and federal research says first-time offenders have driven drunk at least 80 times before their first arrest.

Ken Iwaniec hadn't heard statistics such as these about DUI crashes until his son was killed.

“That's part of the issue,” he said. “People just don't know unless they're directly involved, or until they're directly involved.”

So that is why he and his wife, along with other families who have turned their pain into action, will travel to and from Harrisburg, telling their stories with the hope that lawmakers will listen.

“We know we can't move mountains,” Debby Iwaniec said. “You just have to take a small step, and this is a critical bill that is capable of saving lives.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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