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Maryland families, law enforcement officials commemorate victims of drunken driving

By Rebecca Cohen,

The last time Cheryl Hammond saw her daughter conscious, 19-year-old Jessica Belknap was bounding down the stairs of their Carroll County home, setting off on the daily walk she loved.

An hour later, a neighbor knocked on Hammond’s door. Belknap had been found facedown in the snow, her skull smashed by a truck. The truck’s driver had fled. He would later confess that he had been drinking.

Belknap, whom Hammond called her best friend, died in the hospital a few days later, on Feb. 18, 2011.

Hammond shared her family’s story Wednesday in Annapolis as part of Maryland Remembers, a ceremony at the State House to commemorate those killed by drunk drivers. In 2011, 171 people died in alcohol-related crashes in Maryland.

That was up from 163 the year before, said Maryland’s motor vehicle administrator, John Kuo, whose agency sponsored the event.

“Today, your presence is a reminder to all of us that there are faces, loved ones and families behind the data and numbers,” Kuo told members of about a dozen families, who read aloud the names of relatives killed by drunken driving, displayed their photos and hung red ribbons on a Christmas tree.

The number of alcohol-related crashes typically increases between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as people attend holiday parties where alcoholic drinks are served, Kuo said.

Maryland residents who drink should take responsibility for their behavior, Kuo said. They should also monitor their friends’ drinking and call 911 if they see a driver who seems intoxicated.

Making sure drivers hear from people like Hammond is key to preventing drunken-driving incidents, said the state police superintendent, Col. Marcus L. Brown, who was among the law enforcement officials and state legislators who attended the event Wednesday.

“This is violent crime,” Brown said.

A few months after Belknap’s death, Hammond began telling her story to people who had been ordered to attend victim-impact panels after being convicted of drunken driving. Some of her listeners were obviously “just doing their time,” Hammond said.

But countless others cried and told her they would never again drive after drinking.

Listening to Hammond, they learned of a young woman who had compassion and determination. Belknap would rescue injured birds and stop for turtles trying to cross the road.

She was saving up to move to Hawaii, where she hoped to work as a scuba instructor, a park guide, or possibly a bartender. When she died in 2011, she was $400 away from the $10,000 she wanted to have in the bank before leaving.

“That someone could do this to your child, your baby girl . . . is just unfathomable,” Hammond said.

Hammond said she knows Belknap would want her to speak out.

“It’s my duty and responsibility as her mother to make sure her voice is heard,” she said.

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