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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Governments Warn Drivers of Drunk Driving This Holiday Season

Maryland Hosts Third Annual Maryland Remembers Ceremony to Highlight Holiday Drunk Driving

Nineteen years ago, Tony and Hazel Pung lost their 23-year old daughter Terri and her fiancée to a drunk driver. Recently they traveled to the Maryland State House to deliver an emotional speech to friends and family members of victims of drunk drivers at the Third Annual Maryland Remembers Ceremony. The pain, they said, never goes away.

"The pain is reactivated each time we read about or hear about another similar event, which happens all too frequently in our state," Tony Pung lamented.

With tears in their eyes, and photos of deceased loved ones in hand, a number of friends and family members approached the stage to recite the names of their loved ones.

The Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition, a task force assembled by the State Highway Administration’s Highway Safety Office, hosted the event. The safe driver partnership is made up of elected officials, community activist groups, private agencies and representatives from local, state and federal government.

"This is the period of the year with the most drinking related crashes," offered Neil J. Pederson, administrator at the State Highway Administration. "Now is the time when we really have to highlight the issue and make people aware of the seriousness of the problems and what the consequences will be."

Noting that auto accidents are responsible for the largest percentage of deaths in Maryland among people between the ages of 3 and 34, Pederson restated several times that drunk driving has become a "public health challenge."

Over the past half-decade, alcohol-related accidents have taken an average of 275 lives on Maryland roads, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. According to NHTSA, Maryland had 235 alcohol-related auto deaths in 2005, accounting for about 38 percent of vehicle fatalities in the state.

The coalition praised legislators for their efforts to control drunken driving accidents. Amongst those efforts are legislation passed in 2006 that provides more severe sanctions against repeat offenders and drivers who refuse a Breathalyzer test yet are later found to have a high Blood Alcohol Content; increased spending on media of more than 75 percent; assigning over $890,000 in supplemental enforcement funds in 2005 for sobriety checkpoints and DUI roadblocks; and conducting a vast number of educational programs for officers to strengthen their abilities to recognize impaired drivers and to be of greater assistance to prosecutors in the courtroom.

Impaired driving-related fatalities dropped by 18 percent in 2005. Nancy Kelly, IDC Legislative Committee vice chair and Mothers Against Drunk Driving volunteer, credits much of the success to aggressive police work around the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, were presented by The Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition with a plaque for their support.

Ehrlich exhorted Marylanders to call 911 if they have any suspicion of an impaired driver on the road this holiday season.

"Particularly here in this holiday system, for one reason or another, our culture encourages drinking and driving," Ehrlich said. "It's a wink-wink and a nod-nod. It's the House, it's the office, it's the fill in the blank Christmas party. Everybody has a few drinks and everybody has a good time, but we forget that everybody needs to go home."

The Governor honored friends and family members of victims for summoning the courage to reveal their personal stories.

But to Jerry and Paula Celentano and many others, involvement meant something different.

"I don't know if its bravery, its just that we have such a deep love for our daughter," said Jerry Celentano, whose daughter, Alisa, who was 18 when she was killed five years ago, the victim of an impaired driver, returning home from happy hour, who crashed head-on into the van she was riding in. Alisa was getting ready to go to college to become a social worker.

"When you lose them, you just want to spend that much more time letting everyone know not just what we're missing, but what you're missing," he said.

For others like Paula Celentano, catharsis is found in volunteering for MADD and attending events like the Maryland Remembers Ceremony. "Our involvement with MADD is our therapy," she confessed. "The more time my husband can say Elisa's name, the longer she's still here. You want to take something horrible and try to make something positive about it."

For more information about driver safety, The National Safety Commission and Lowest Price Traffic School offer safe teen driving resources for first time drivers and their parents. Click here for our monthly newsletter for teen drivers and the Driver Education Guide for Parents.

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