updated 3/23/2004 12:01:12 AM ET 2004-03-23T05:01:12

Susan McDonald had a 0.22 blood-alcohol level — more than twice the legal limit — when she drove into the back of a truck on New Year’s Day in 1998. Her 5-year-old daughter Carlie, who was buckled into the front seat, died in the crash. Carlie’s booster seat sat unused in the back.

Susan McDonald survived and spent 14 months in prison. Carlie’s father, Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Carl McDonald, is now working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to stiffen penalties for adults who drive drunk with kids in the car. Carl McDonald and MADD are announcing a new 50-state effort in Washington on Tuesday.

MADD wants states to standardize their drunken driving and child endangerment laws to make sure child passengers are protected. The organization says states should consider anyone under 16 a child; revoke licenses from drunken drivers who drive with kids; and require convicted drunken drivers who may transport kids to pass a Breathalyzer test before they can start their car.

Tighter limits
MADD also says states should pass laws requiring a lower allowable blood-alcohol level of .05 for adults who have been convicted of driving drunk with kids. The legal limit in most states is .08.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that two-thirds of children 14 and younger who died in drunken driving crashes between 1997 and 2001 were riding with the drunken driver.

“All of us have the impression that drunk drivers are the other guy out there,” Carl McDonald said. “The horrible truth is that Carlie’s death serves more as an example than an exception to the rule.”

MADD says it gets 17,000 calls a year from people who are concerned that a drunken driver is transporting children. Yet 14 states and the District of Columbia have no enhanced penalties for drunken drivers caught with kids in the car, MADD says.

The 36 states that do have stiffer penalties have a patchwork of laws. Maine requires 48 hours of jail time if the passenger is under 21, while Arizona requires one year of jail time if the passenger is under 15, according to a MADD review. Some states require escalating penalties if the child is injured or killed. Delaware requires community service and fines.

Thirteen of the 36 states do not enhance penalties if the passenger is 15 or older. MADD says states should set that age at 16, an age when many children can take over the driving if necessary.

Steve Oberman, an attorney based in Knoxville, Tenn., who specializes in drunken driving issues, questions why penalties should be enhanced only when child passengers are involved.

“Why should a person be treated differently if they have a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old in a car?” Oberman said. “The risk of injury is the same.”

'Form of child abuse'
MADD President Wendy Hamilton says children need special protection because “they don’t have a choice when they’re getting in the car.”

“This is a form of child abuse,” Hamilton said.

Carl McDonald, who was divorced from Susan McDonald at the time of the accident, said parents also need tools to prevent drunken driving if they know their ex-spouse has a substance abuse problem.

Carl McDonald said it should be easier to order ex-spouses to undergo drug and alcohol testing, challenge visitation rights or order that Breathalyzer tests be installed in their cars.

Efforts to reach Susan McDonald for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

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