ANNAPOLIS — Rich Leotta can hardly control his grief.
His son, Noah, was a Montgomery County Police officer who was struck and killed by a drunken driver in early December. The night the 24-year-old policeman was killed, he had been working as part of a DUI task force. He had pulled over another drunken driver and was walking back to his car when a second drunken driver hit him and his cruiser.
Mr. Leotta’s voice broke as he tried to describe his son, saying he was energetic, well-liked and kind. He smiled as he said he raised Noah to be better than he was.
Now, Mr. Leotta is lobbying the state legislature to pass a law requiring people convicted of drunken driving to have an ignition-locking system installed in their cars — legislation he calls “simple” and “very, very low-hanging fruit.”
He partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to release Wednesday their first-ever report on the number of times ignition interlocks have stopped drunken drivers across the nation.
MADD said that the systems have stopped more than 1.77 million drivers from driving while intoxicated since 1999, when states first pass laws requiring some offenders to install them. The report compiled the number of times the 11 major manufacturers of interlock devices say they have stopped people from being able to start their vehicles.
According to the report, the interlock devices have stopped people from driving drunk more than 18,000 times in Maryland.
The group was joined by Mr. Leotta and several lawmakers to change the current process of requiring ignition interlock for only repeat offenders or those with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15, twice the legal limit.
The legislation has been introduced repeatedly for years but has died in committee. It now has been dubbed “Noah’s Law” in honor of the fallen officer.
The week before Noah was killed, Mr. Leotta said, he and his son had been talking about Maryland’s weak DUI laws and how many judges fail to properly enforce the laws. His death at the hands of a drunken driver seems like bitter irony, the father said.
Mr. Leotta still wears his son’s badge around his neck and that “it just rips me apart.”
“I’m a distraught, heartbroken father,” he said.
The bill is sponsored in the House by Delegate Benjamin Kramer and in the Senate by Sen. Jamie Raskin, both Montgomery County Democrats.
“Of all the thousands of bills that will introduced during this session, and literally there are thousands, this is the only piece of legislation that we can say for a fact is going to save lives. This is the only bill,” Mr. Kramer said. “And the demarcation lines on this are clear. There’s no gray area. Either you’re on the side of angels or you’re with the liquor lobby.”
The ignition interlock device is about the size of a cellphone and is hard-wired into the vehicle. Before a driver can start the car, he or she must blow into it via a tube to measure their breath’s blood-alcohol level.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, MADD’s national president, said the devices could save more lives if offenders were required to use them right after their first arrest.
Most people who have driven while intoxicated often do it multiple times and monitoring their driving would have an immediate effect on saving lives, she said.
Currently, 25 states require all offenders to install the devices after their first conviction. Other states, such as Maryland, require them only for repeat offenses or extremely high blood-alcohol content, or per a judge’s discretion.
Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn said he and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan both supported this legislation. Mr. Rahn and Mr. Hogan have put together a proposal giving first-time drunken-driving offenders the option of voluntarily installing an ignition interlock device in their vehicle in exchange for the state not taking away their license. The option will be available later this spring, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
The proposed legislation has been criticized by the American Beverage Institute for being a costly fix to the problem that puts the burden on state parole and monitoring budgets.
“Instead of expanding interlock requirements to include low-BAC, first-time drunk drivers, states should focus their resources on the most dangerous drunk drivers,” Sarah Longwell, managing director of ABI, said. “This means investing more resources to ensure the highest risk offenders actually comply with interlock orders, extending the length of time these interlocks remain on repeat drunk drivers’ vehicles, and adopting a 24/7 Sobriety Program as an alternative to interlocks.”
Neighboring Virginia has been required first-time offenders to install ignition interlocks since 2012, and according to the report, the devices have stopped people from driving drunk there more than 10,000 times.
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said Noah’s case is going to a grand jury later this week.