Nearly two dozen families gathered in Annapolis on Wednesday to hang red ribbons on a Christmas tree in honor of relatives who were killed by drunk drivers.
When Cheryl Hammond's turn came, she told the audience her ribbon was in memory of her 19-year-old daughter Jessica Belknap who died in February 2011 on her way home from a walk.
"Letting go of her hand for the last time was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Hammond said, her eyes watering. "The senselessness of it all has been hard to deal with."
She spoke at length about her daughter's life and ambitions to the crowd gathered at the Miller Senate Office Building for the ninth annual Maryland Remembers event.
Belknap had obtained a certification to teach scuba diving and was saving up for a move to Hawaii when a 34-year-old electrician crashed into her with his truck on the way home from a local bar near Belknap's home in Carroll County. He fled the scene.
Hammond recalled getting the news of her daughter's accident from a neighbor, and the long wait at the hospital for an update on her condition.
"All her long, blonde hair had been shaved, and in its place were staples holding her fractured skull together," Hammond said.
Belknap died two days later.
The number of drunken driving deaths in Maryland rose to 171 in 2011 from 163 in 2010, according to state statistics. In 40 percent of the cases in 2011, the driver had a blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08.
One third of all driving related fatalities in 2011 were caused by Maryland drivers who had alcohol in their system, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Maryland officers arrested 22,000 people for drunk driving in 2011—an averafge of 60 people per day, said Col. Marcus Brown, superintendent of the Maryland State Police. An NHTSA survey found that one in five drivers have admitted to driving drunk at least once in their life, and 8 percent of people admitted to doing so within the last year.
"We know we are going to miss a lot of people," Brown said. "Enforcement has to be coupled with education."
Hammond attributes these statistics in part to Maryland's laws on drunk driving—which she views as lenient.
The electrician who killed Hammond's daughter received three years in a county jail with work release. She said his sentence was largely based on the fact that he fled the scene, because drunk drivers are not considered grossly negligent under state law and cars are not considered deadly weapons.
"We as citizens of this state did not protect her or the countless others who have died," Hammond said. "There needs to be a huge societal shift. Drunk driving needs to be completely taboo."
State Sen. John Astle (D-Annapolis) agreed.
He sat in the back of the audience and teared up when asked for his opinion on stricter penalties for drunk drivers.
"As a parent of a child who was killed by a drunk driver, I agree," Astle said. "Unless we get serious about dealing with drunk drivers, we are going to continue to lose friends, relatives and children."
See related coverage:
- Death notice: Jessica Elaine Belknap
- Carroll County Man Charged with Automobile Manslaughter in Belknap Death