BY EMMA SULLIVAN // OCT. 6, 2013 //
Everyone knows that heroes don’t always wear capes. But not everyone is familiar with Ron Bersani and his family.
On July 25, 2003, Bersani lost his granddaughter Melanie Powell, 13, to a drunk driving accident. Powell was struck by a repeat offender while crossing a street in Marshfield, Mass., with a group of her friends.
After Powell’s passing, Bersani began to study Massachusetts’ drunk driving laws. He quickly became determined to spark a change. That determination led to a new state law, signed in 2005, which greatly increased the penalties for drunk driving and allowed prosecutors to more easily introduce evidence from prior driving-related convictions.
This past Thursday, Oct. 3, Bersani was at Curry College to tell the story of his granddaughter and the law her memory helped to create.
It was the last state to pass the “per se law,” which determines that legal intoxication begins at a .08 blood alcohol level. In addition, Massachusetts was one of five states to not mandate that certain offenders use ignition interlock devices, which require drivers to take a Breathalyzer test before their vehicle’s engine will start. From 2003 to 2004, Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranked Massachusetts’ drunk driving laws the 48th worst in the nation.
The driver who killed Powell, Pamela Murphy, had a previous drunk driving conviction. Nonetheless, Murphy was sentenced to the minimum 2 ½ years in state prison and two years of probation for the vehicular homicide of Powell.
Bersani and Powell’s parents, Tod and Nancy, began pushing relentlessly for stronger drunk driving laws. In 2005, Gov. Mitt Romney finally signed what became known as Melanie’s Law.
Melanie’s Law cracks down on multiple offense drunk drivers by requiring ignition interlock devices to be installed in second-offense drivers’ vehicles, allowing certified court documents to be used as evidence of a driver’s previous offenses across the state—rather than requiring the arresting officer to appear in court—and requiring license suspension for anyone who refuses a Breathalyzer test. In addition, the minimum sentence for vehicular homicide was increased from 2 ½ years to five years.
The Powells and Bersani continue their efforts to tighten Massachusetts’ drunk driving laws. Most recently, Bersani worked to limit the availability of alcohol in supermarkets and convenience stores.
The effects of Melanie’s Law have been impressive. Drunk driving-related fatalities decreased by 20 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to Bersani, and as of 2009 553 repeat offenders had an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle. Of those 553 drivers, only two re-offended, he added.
In Massachusetts, countless lives have been touched and saved by Melanie’s story and her namesake law.