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Bike path tragedy reinforces fight against DWI

While not having guardrails where the Amherst bike path is close to Tonawanda Creek Road is not the best situation, the bigger safety problem is people driving under the influence, and loopholes in the law that allow them to continue doing so.

Tragically and almost incomprehensibly, Jocelyn B. Elberson, 25, of the Town of Tonawanda, and Sheila Pelton, 81, of East Amherst, were struck and killed by a motorcycle as they walked on the bike path last Sunday. Pelton’s husband, Foster, 79, was seriously injured.

The motorcycle operator, David A. Smith, 53, of Niagara Falls, was charged with driving while intoxicated and criminally negligent homicide. Smith also could face more charges as the investigation continues, according to Amherst police.

The victims, who did not know each other, decided to take advantage of an unseasonably warm day and go out for a stroll. The fact that there is no separation between the bike path and Tonawanda Creek Road along part of the trail has long been an issue. This tragedy has elevated those concerns, and the problem will have to be dealt with.

And while sympathetic to those concerns, Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert N. Anderson and Council Member Guy R. Marlette, liaison to the town’s Traffic Safety Committee, also make the valid point that no level of precautions can eliminate the threat posed by reckless driving or driving under the influence.

But what could help are stronger laws and tough enforcement of existing laws to deter such behavior in the first place.

Smith, the motorcycle operator, has had three drunken driving arrests in the past 15 years. He was convicted in 1997 and 2000, and a 2010 charge in Florida was dropped, apparently on a technicality. Clearly, this is a man who should not have been allowed to drive.

To their credit, judges and prosecutors in recent years have been clamping down on DWI offenders. DWI should not be plea-bargained down to a lesser offense. Offenders should face strict probation terms to prevent another incident. Repeat offenders should face jail time.

Laws can also be tightened. The state’s “Leandra’s Law” is one example. The law requiring convicted drivers to use an ignition interlock, essentially its own Breathalyzer test, can be evaded in some instances. Also, a driver could simply borrow someone else’s car.

Lawmakers should consider the measure by State Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., a Long Island Republican, which passed the Senate. The measure requires offenders who do not install the interlock to instead wear a “transdermal, alcohol monitoring device,” such as an ankle bracelet. The Democratic-controlled Assembly should take up the bill.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has instructed the Department of Motor Vehicles to toughen rules against repeat drunken drivers. His orders should be heeded promptly.

Amherst officials will be looking at the need for new safety measures along the bike path. But the very real problem of drunken drivers shouldn’t get lost in a debate over the absence of guardrails.