Family of teen killed by drunken driver urges ignition locks

June 12, 2008 1:31:51 PM PDT
Richard and Sherri Branca know the anguish of having a child die because of a repeat drunken driver. The South Jersey couple is turning grief over the death of their 17-year-old son into advocacy for legislation requiring alcohol-sensitizing ignition locks on the vehicles of everyone convicted of DUI. Legislation mandating the locks - which prevent a vehicle from starting until the driver blows into a device to prove they're sober - was introduced in the state Senate last week and assigned to the public safety committee.

Eight states have similar laws in place, according to Glynn Birch, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Those states are New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, Illinois, Washington, Nebraska, Alaska and Colorado. Many of the laws bear the names of a drunken driving victims.

A prior attempt at advancing similar legislation in New Jersey failed, though judges here have discretion to order ignition locks on the vehicles of drunken driving offenders.

"It makes good sense to impose restrictions on those who cannot control themselves as a way to prevent further tragedies like the one that took the life of Ricci Branca," said Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, one of the bill's sponsors.

Ricci was a handsome 17-year-old high school junior with curly brown hair and a warm smile who was run down while riding his bike with friends in Egg Harbor Township nearly two years ago. The man who ran him over had a previous DUI conviction and a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit when the accident happened. The New Jersey law would be named for him.

MADD is conducting a national campaign to mandate ignition locks for anyone convicted of drunken driving.

If the measure becomes law, it would add another punishment to the fines, fees, surcharges, license suspensions, community service, and alcohol screenings already imposed on drunken drivers.

Drivers would be required to have an on-board breath testing device in any car they drive for as long as their license is suspended, and for a specified period after their driving privileges are restored depending on whether they are a first-time or repeat offender.

Current law allows the courts to order interlock devices for repeat or first-time offenders after their driving privileges have been restored, according to Cathleen Lewis, spokeswoman for the Motor Vehicle Commission.

MADD cited studies showing interlock devices reduce repeat offenses by 50 to 90 percent.

The group said one-third of all drunk drivers have a prior DUI conviction, and that the average first-time offenders has driven drunk 87 times before being caught.

For the Brancas, the story is more personal.

"Ricci was loved by everyone," said his mom, Sherri Branca, choking back tears. "He loved riding his bike and hanging out with his friends. We miss Ricci so much."

His sister, Adrienne, also cried as she described her fun-loving brother.

"The only closure we can have is to keep this from happening to other families," she said.