Drunk driving bill takes off ‘like wildfire’ in legislatures across the country

It would require impaired drivers convicted of vehicular homicide to pay child support for victims’ surviving children.
Motorists slow as traffic backs up in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

More than a third of states this year have picked up on an idea that originated with a Missouri grandmother grieving the loss of three family members in a crash caused by an alleged drunk driver.

Lawmakers from Arkansas to Washington have introduced some form of “Bentley’s Law,” which would require impaired drivers who are convicted of vehicular homicide to pay child support for the surviving children of their victims.

Frank Harris, director of state government affairs at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, called the trending effort unprecedented in his 15 years with the organization.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before with bills on drunk driving reform,” Harris said. “It is like wildfire the way this is taking off.”

Cecilia Williams championed the law after her son, future daughter-in-law and 4-month-old grandson were killed in a 2021 crash in Missouri. Williams was left to raise her son’s two surviving children, Bentley, 6, and Mason, 4.

After the fatal crash, Williams began advocating for states to require restitution on behalf of children who lose a parent or guardian because of an impaired driving accident.

MADD officials attributed the rapid proliferation of bills this year to Williams’s grassroots efforts, the media attention that garnered, and victims and survivors around the country contacting their local lawmakers.

So far in 2023, versions of “Bentley’s Law” have been introduced or reintroduced for the second year in a row in at least 18 states, according to tracking by both MADD and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“To have 18 plus states introduce this legislation is a huge trend overall,” said Annie Kitch, a senior policy specialist at NCSL. “States are always looking at approaches to toughen DUI penalties, and this represents a new approach to hold offenders accountable.”

Last year, Tennessee became the first state to enact a version of the law. It was named “Ethan’s, Hailey’s and Bentley’s Law” after the two children of a Chattanooga police officer killed by an intoxicated driver and after Williams’s grandson.

“Many families like mine suffer such a loss every second of every day, and Bentley’s Law will bring change to hold the offender accountable for such horrific actions,” Williams said in a statement after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed the bill into law in July.

Missouri lawmakers considered the idea last year but did not pass it.

State lawmakers are paying fresh attention to the issue of drunk and drugged driving amid a concerning rise in roadway fatalities, including a 14% increase in alcohol-impaired driving deaths from 2019 to 2020.

That trend has prompted some states to consider lowering the legal drunk driving limit from .08% blood alcohol concentration to .05%. There are also proposals to expand the use of ignition interlock devices to prevent repeat drunk drivers.

No states have enacted “Bentley’s Law” yet this year. Bills in Mississippi and Virginia already died, and a version in Georgia, which was scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday, was removed from the agenda at the last minute. MADD’s tracking shows most of the other bills are still in committee.

One of the furthest along is a bill in Washington State that is awaiting a vote on the House floor.

Sponsored by state Rep. Brandy Donaghy (D), the measure would require anyone convicted of vehicular homicide related to impaired driving to pay “child maintenance” to the victim’s surviving children until they reach 18 and graduate from high school.

A court would set the amount of restitution based on several factors, including the financial, physical and emotional needs of the children. The requirement to pay child support could be waived if a judge determined the person did not have the ability to pay or if the family obtained a civil judgment against the impaired driver.

“Hopefully this will provide an opportunity for young people who have lost their parents to be able to move forward with their lives, without having to give up every opportunity they otherwise may have had,” Donaghy said in committee testimony last month.

No one testified in opposition to the Washington bill. But concerns have been raised in some states about the logistics of implementing the child support requirement. In Virginia, the Family Law Coalition opposed the legislation.

“There’s already a very expansive wrongful death statute that people can take advantage of and get relief of the type that this bill is trying to introduce,” Daniel Gray, the coalition’s chair, told Capital News Service last month.

In January, the driver accused of killing Cecilia Williams’s family members in Missouri was convicted of involuntary manslaughter but acquitted of driving while intoxicated.