WEST CHESTER — The choices you make regarding drinking or using drugs and getting behind the wheel can impact not only your New Year’s holiday, but your entire life and that of other drivers, state Sen. Andy Dinniman reminded residents and motorists.
“With the New Year’s holiday, I know there will be a lot of parties, get-togethers and opportunities for drinking. But please remember that when you decide to drive while impaired on drugs or alcohol, your entire life – your entire world – can change in an instant,” Dinniman, D-19 of West Whiteland, said. “Don’t do it. And don’t let others do it. Have a designated driver, call a taxi, Uber or Lyft, walk, or just stay home. There’s no excuse to drive intoxicated – not now, not ever.”
No one needs to remind the friends and family of Deana Eckman of the dangers of drunk drivers. The Brookhaven woman was killed by a six-time DUI offender last year and new laws cracking down on repeat offenders in her name go on the books in the new year.
Dinniman’s remarks came leading up to the New Year’s holiday, a period when state and local police step up enforcement and hundreds of Pennsylvanians are arrested for DUI each year.
Earlier this year, Senate Bill 773, known as Deana’s Law, unanimously passed the Senate Transportation Committee and is set to go to the Senate floor for a vote when they return from holiday break. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, and co-sponsored by Dinniman, calls for substantially increasing penalties for those who have multiple DUI convictions and targeting offenders who repeatedly drive drunk with high Blood Alcohol Content levels in their systems.
“With committee approval, Senate Bill 773 is on track to be passed by the Senate before the first anniversary of Deana Eckman’s tragic death on February 16th,” said Killion. “Deana was a warm, loving, generous woman murdered by an individual now convicted of six DUIs. This bill, named in her memory, will save lives.”
Killion said he hopes to bring the bill up for a vote and get it over to the state House when the Senate returns in January. If the Senate version is approved by the House, it would then go to Gov. Tom Wolf to sign into law.
Eckman, 45, was killed by David Strowhouer in a drunk-driving crash as she and her husband, Chris, were returning home from a family gathering. Strowhouer had five previous DUIs on his record in the prior 10 years, all with high rates of alcohol in his system.
Strowhouer was sentenced to 25 and a half to 50 years in state prison last week after pleading guilty in August to murder of the third degree, aggravated assault and related offenses for the Feb. 16 crash on Route 452 in Upper Chichester.
He previously pleaded guilty to his third and fourth DUIs at the same time in Chester County Oct. 2, 2017, and was given a total sentence of 18 to 36 months in state prison. Later that same month, he pleaded to a fifth DUI in Delaware County for DUI: controlled substance – combination alcohol/drug as a third offense. The sentence in the Delaware County case was run concurrent to the Chester County sentence.
Eckman’s mother, Roseanne DeRosa, said allowing the sentence to run concurrent was a “big flaw” in the system that she is working to address with Killion’s help.
“After the third DUI, a red flag should go up and things should be changed, without a doubt,” she said. “If you’ve been through the court system three times and there’s no change, then something needs to be done.”
Deana’s Law would require anyone convicted on a third DUI to serve a sentence consecutive to any other sentence imposed by the court and increase jail time for repeat offenders. Current sentencing guidelines for fourth and fifth offenses are three-and-a-half to seven years, but the bill would raise those to five to 10 years and 10 to 20 years, respectively.
“These crimes are so egregious, those convicted of them should not be allowed the luxury of serving DUI sentences concurrently,” said Killion. “It was a concurrent sentence which allowed the individual who killed Deana to be on the road rather than behind bars.”
The bill would also impose preventative measures by mandating statewide use of “continuous alcohol monitoring” devices, also known as CAM (or “SCRAM” for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor). These devices are affixed to offenders in the same manner as electronic home monitoring devices, but sample and test the wearer’s perspiration for the presence of alcohol.
If the device senses alcohol in the wearer’s system, a signal is transmitted to a monitoring agency that can notify police to detain the person before they drive in the hopes of averting another tragedy.
“We worked hard trying to get what we wanted in that bill,” said Roseanne DeRosa. “The SCRAM bracelets, that’s a huge thing. It definitely will prevent people from drinking and driving. The county might say it’s going to cost us more money, but as we said in Harrisburg: Either you’re going to have to pay more money to keep these people incarcerated and pay for SCRAM bracelets, or you’re going to have to build more cemeteries … It’s a no-brainer.”
Killion noted York County has enjoyed remarkable success with CAM devices over the past seven years as part of adjudications in DUI cases. York saw a 90% decline in DUI recidivism in the first year of their use and DUI fatalities dropped 21% from the previous three-year average during that same period, he said.
“They effectively deter offenders from consuming alcohol,” said Killion. “You keep someone from drinking, you keep them from turning a three-ton vehicle into a killing machine.”
Roseanne DeRosa said she would continue to work doggedly to ensure the bill becomes law and hopes to work with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the future to educate younger people about the dangers of drinking and driving.
“It’s not going to bring (Deana) back, but at least I’m doing something to honor her name,” she said. “Our whole family is suffering and I hear from other people that have lost children and you never get over it, but if you can help prevent it in any small way, you know, why not?”
Last year, Pennsylvania State Police arrested 406 people for driving under the influence during the four-day New Year’s holiday enforcement period from Dec. 29, 2018 through Jan. 1, 2019. The total is an increase from the 284 DUI arrests made over the 2018 holiday weekend, which spanned three days.
In addition, troopers investigated 642 crashes, of which 64 involved alcohol, 155 people were injured, and four people were killed in four fatal crashes. One of the fatal collisions involved alcohol.
In addition to DUI enforcement, troopers issued 6,370 speeding citations, 476 seat belt citations, and 115 child safety seat citations.
“Sadly, what should be a happy and joyous time can turn to one of unspeakable tragedy when it comes to drinking and driving. The combination of more people traveling on our roads and more social events and drinking can be fatal, but it need not be. Drunk and/or drugged driving crashes, injuries and deaths are entirely preventable,” he said. “And while we’ve made some great progress in cracking down on repeat offenders in recent years, there’s still more work to do.”
In addition to Deana’s law, those efforts include:
• Act 33 of 2016, expanding the use of interlock ignition devices for DUI offenders and requiring interlock ignition devices for first-time DUI offenders with high blood alcohol content.
• Act 153 of 2018, targeting repeat DUI offenders with tougher penalties and longer sentences, including aggravated DUI and aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI.