Two years ago this week, 17-year-old Ricci Branca was riding his bicycle with friends along Ocean Drive in Egg Harbor Township when a drunk driver took away his future, devastated his family and left his many friends in shock.
When law enforcement caught up with drunk driver Stephen French after he fled the scene, his blood alcohol level was found to be four times the legal limit. After admittedly drinking at least ten glasses of wine in a bar over four hours, he still got behind the wheel of his car. He’s now doing 16 years in State prison.
Somehow, Ricci’s parents, Sherri and Richard Branca, found the strength to turn their grief into a powerful message of hope so other families might be spared their loss. I was inspired by them to sponsor “Ricci’s Law,” which will prevent drunks from deceiving themselves and others into believing that they’re okay to drive home.
My bill, S-1926, would require ignition interlocks for the vehicles of all convicted drunk drivers while their licenses are suspended and for a period afterwards. By blocking a car from starting if alcohol is detected in a driver’s breath, the locks will significantly strengthen our ability to deal with a drunk’s lack of willpower.
No one device is capable of ending the horrors associated with drunken driving. But the interlocks can be a vital part of the battle to make people drink responsibly if they are driving.
The pictures I’ve seen of Ricci Branca show a handsome young man with an engaging smile. He was said to have been an inspiration to his friends and a joy to his family. His tragic death can be turned into something positive under this proposal.
The concept is very straightforward. If someone has been drinking alcohol, his or her car won’t start once the drinker’s breath is registered on the interlock device. Someone else will be forced to drive the drinker home. A group of teenagers on bicycles will be able to proceed to their next destination alive, unharmed and undisturbed by a drinker’s blurred perceptions.
Some people have told me that the technology with interlocks needs work, that they’ll discourage people from going to bars and restaurants and that they aren’t advisable in every specific case of drunk driving.
But nobody has told me that finding a way to keep drunks from driving is a bad idea. That’s why I am promoting this legislation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving have backed Ricci’s Law as part of their national mission.
I believe the restaurant and tavern industries can continue to thrive by supporting sensible policies like this to deter drunk driving who have shown they cannot control themselves when it comes to alcohol consumption.
The driver who caused the death of Ricci Branca is paying a debt to society with a long prison sentence. Unfortunately, that sentence has not prevented others from consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and then turning their cars into killing machines. The alcohol ignition interlock can do just that.
Senator Whelan, a Democrat, represents the 2nd Legislative District which includes Absecon, Atlantic City, Brigantine, Corbin City, Egg Harbor, Egg Harbor Township, Estell Manor, Galloway, Hamilton, Linwood, Longport, Margate, Mullica, Northfield, Pleasantville, Port Republic, Ventnor, and Weymouth. He is a is a veteran teacher and a former mayor of Atlantic City.