Family of DUI victim calls for new law

Jeff and Cindy Webster, of Bellefonte, lost their daughter, Julie Webster, in 2010 in a accident that involved a drunken driver. The couple is working to improve drunken driving legislation.
Jeff and Cindy Webster, of Bellefonte, lost their daughter, Julie Webster, in 2010 in a accident that involved a drunken driver. The couple is working to improve drunken driving legislation. nmark@centredaily.com

It was July 2010 when Julie Webster, 25, died after a crash in Pleasant Gap when the car she was riding in rolled off East College Avenue in the early morning hours.

The driver, Shawn Meter, 21, had a blood alcohol content of 0.209.

It was not his first offense.

In July 2009, the Bellefonte man was picked up for a different incident. His BAC was 0.136, more than 50 percent above the legal limit. He was placed on accelerated rehabilitative disposition, a program that works with first offenders to try to keep them from repeating their mistakes. If they complete the program successfully, their records are expunged.

Meter did not. One year after his first arrest, he was in serious condition in the hospital, and Julie Webster, the young lab technician who wanted to be a drug and alcohol counselor, was dead.

Her parents don’t want anyone else to lose their family to a second offense.

Jeff Webster has spent the five years since Meter’s guilty plea and sentencing in the case working for change.

The family uses the website www.justice4julie.com to educate, and they take it a step further, telling their daughter’s story in person. They visit State College and Bellefonte schools to talk to kids about the dangers of drinking and driving.

“I feel like we’ve made progress on education,” Jeff Webster said. “Now we need legislation.”

Additional legislation, that is. Pennsylvania has a lot of laws about driving under the influence. There is DUI, DUI-first offense, DUI specifically tied to different tiers of BAC, plus homicide by vehicle, the felony for which Meter is serving his sentence at Fayette state prison.

But some say it isn’t enough.

WalletHub, a company that analyzes statistics on a state and city basis across the country, ranked the strictest DUI laws in the U.S. Pennsylvania came in 49 out of 51, only edging out South Dakota and the District of Columbia. The Keystone State was 48th in criminal penalties and 47th in prevention.

That’s not good enough for Jeff Webster.

He is pushing to have the General Assembly pass another law. He wants to have first offenders restricted in their driving with ignition interlocks that would prevent a driver with alcohol on his breath from starting his car. House Bill 278 and Senate Bill 290 would do just that.

State Sen. Kerry Benninghoff is sympathetic. A former Centre County coroner, he is all too familiar with the kind of heartbreak that the Websters suffered. But after years in the General Assembly, he also knows that laws don’t always work.

“We have tightened laws. We have a tremendous amount of laws on the book,” Benninghoff said. “More laws don’t necessarily change those behaviors.”

But he agrees that something has to happen.

“DUI stuff is never easy,” he said. “I’ve seen case after case of people getting arrested for a fourth or fifth DUI. I’ve even seen people getting arrested on the way to the hearing.”

He isn’t sure an ignition interlock would prevent that. Would it stop them using the car with the device? Yes. It wouldn’t stop them from using another vehicle, just like taking away a driver’s license didn’t stop Meter from driving the day Julie Webster died.

“This is a tool to look at, but we need treatment to change behavior,” Benninghoff said.

But Jeff Webster isn’t giving up. Strengthening laws that could stop another family from losing a loved one is more than just a hobby.

“For me, this is the way me and my family continue to remember our daughter,” he said.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce