By David J. Silverman, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Though colorful holiday decorations gave the rotunda of the Maryland State House a festive and joyous atmosphere, the message that Tony and Hazel Pung came to deliver was anything but.
In voices shaking with emotion, the Pungs told a rapt audience about how their 23-year-old daughter Terri and her fiance had been killed 19 years ago by a drunk driver, about how the pain still had not gone away and probably never would.
"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 said.
It was in the hope of preventing such tragedies that the Pungs joined several other friends and family members of victims of drunk drivers for the Third Annual Maryland Remembers Ceremony.
Clutching pictures of victims, several friends and family members walked on stage to pronounce the names of their loved ones. Many had tears in their eyes, a testament to the pain which they said never goes away.
The event was put on by the Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition, a task force organized by the State Highway Administration's Highway Safety Office. The coalition comprises elected officials, community activist groups, private agencies and various representatives from local, state and federal government.
"This is the period of the year with the most drinking related crashes," said 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."
Pederson reiterated several times that drunk driving has become a "public health challenge." He noted that automobile accidents account for the largest proportion of deaths in Maryland among people between the ages of 3 and 34.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Maryland had 235 fatalities in 2005 from impaired driving accidents, accounting for about 38 percent of traffic fatalities in the state. Over the past five years, alcohol-related crashes have claimed an average of 275 lives on Maryland roads, NHTSA said.
The coalition lauded lawmakers for their efforts to curb drunken driving accidents.
These efforts include: legislation passed in 2006 that toughens sanctions against repeat offenders and persons who refuse a Breathalyzer test but are later found to have a high Blood Alcohol Content; increasing spending on media of more than 75 percent; allocating more than $890,000 in supplemental enforcement funds in 2005 for sobriety checkpoints and DUI patrols; and conducting numerous educational programs for officers to strengthen their abilities to spot impaired drivers and assisting in courtroom prosecution.
In 2005, the number of impaired driving-related fatalities dropped by 18 percent. 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.
The Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition presented Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, with a plaque for their support.
Ehrlich urged Marylanders this holiday season to call 911 if they have any suspicion of an impaired driver on the roads.
"Particularly here in this holiday system, for one reason or another, our culture encourages drinking and driving," he 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."
Ehrlich praised friends and family members of victims for having the courage to come forward and share their personal stories.
But to many at the event, like Jerry and Paula Celentano, 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 of his daughter, Alisa, who was killed five years ago at the age of 18 when an impaired driver, returning home from happy hour, slammed head-on into the van she was riding in. Alisa had been preparing 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 Paula Celentano and others, volunteering for MADD and attending events like the Maryland Remembers Ceremony is cathartic. "Our involvement with MADD is our therapy," Paula Celentano said. "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."