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After death, a wake-up call

Fatal crash inspires family to seek tough law on 'drowsy driving'

MILFORD -- The marriage proposal was made in a romantic stone castle in Germany, and a fairy-tale wedding was planned. The groom-to-be, Major Robert Raneri, had bought a crisp, new Army uniform for the occasion and had already warned his mother not to tell wedding guests any embarrassing stories from his childhood.

But instead of crossing swords over the bride and groom -- a custom at military weddings -- servicemen carried Raneri's coffin to the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

On June 26, 2002, Raneri, a 37-year-old Holliston native who lived in Nashua, was heading to work along Route 111 in Pepperell when a car crossed the median and slammed head-on into his Harley-Davidson. Raneri was thrown from the motorcycle, and he was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

It was a week before Raneri and his fiancee, Major Amy Huther, 37, were to be married. Two weeks later, Huther, who served with Raneri in the Army Reserve, would find out she was pregnant with their child.

The 19-year-old driver of the car, Christopher Chickering of Merrimack, N.H., admitted to police that, at the time of the crash, he had not slept in 24 hours after a night of playing video games with some friends. The lack of skid marks at the crash scene suggests he fell asleep at the wheel. Charged with a misdemeanor under Massachusetts law, Chickering's license was suspended for 10 years, and he received five years of probation and 140 hours of community service.

Huther and Raneri's parents, Janet and Louis, were stunned by what they considered a light sentence. They contacted state legislators about the possibility of enacting tougher penalties. Raneri's family now awaits the fate of a bill sponsored by state Representative Marie Parente that would make fatal accidents caused by sleep deprivation punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

''I could feel [Huther's] pain in the e-mail she sent and just felt so sorry for her," said Parente, a Milford Democrat. ''She has taken her grief and turned it into something, and what we're all discussing now is a perfect memorial for the person she lost." Last year, New Jersey lawmakers passed a law -- the first of its kind in the nation -- allowing sentences of up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $100,000 for fatal accidents caused by sleep deprivation.

But some Massachusetts legislators say they need more information before they are ready to sign on to the bill. State Representative James Vallee, a Franklin Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and served with Raneri in the Army Reserve, , said the sticking point is the current lack of methods to determine whether drowsiness is actually to blame for a crash, as the breath test does for alcohol. ''In this case, the kid admitted it, but I think if it was a crime, I don't think people would freely say it," Vallee said.

Sleep experts say researchers are currently looking at whether eyelid movement or other roadside procedures can be used to determine a driver's drowsiness. ''My sense is that we will eventually have something, but a biological marker is still going to be difficult," said David Dinges, chief of the division of sleep and chronobiology in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. ''It's just finding something that's easily measurable without taking blood or without doing something invasive."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that roughly 100,000 crashes, including 1,500 fatalities, occur per year as a result of sleep-deprived drivers. They estimate an additional 71,000 people are injured.

One study found that drivers who have not slept in 24 hours are as impaired as someone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.1 percent, while 0.08 is considered legally drunk.

Like Raneri's family, others are looking to stiffen laws and add drowsy driving to the host of issues covered in driver education programs. ''There is growing sentiment that drowsy driving is dangerous," said Darrel Drobnich, a senior director at the National Sleep Foundation. Drobnich said his organization has been working with states such as Florida, Texas, and New York to craft tougher penalties. Though he acknowledges the lack of technology is a challenge for advocates of these laws, Drobnich said it should not be. ''Alcohol laws have been on the books for almost a hundred years -- long before there was technology to detect alcohol," he said.

Meanwhile, Huther and Raneri's family are doing what they can to promote the issue locally. Huther said raising awareness, not punishment, is the bill's intention. ''My hope with the law is not so much that I want to punish people," she said. ''It's that I would like to save people, and maybe somebody won't get behind the wheel and drive home when they have not slept in 24 hours."

Huther, who works as an engineer at the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, and Raneri worked together for eight years before they started dating in the spring of 2000. Soon, he left to head a military police unit in Bosnia, where he served for almost a year. They talked by phone or e-mail three or four times a week. When Raneri came back in 2001, the Westfield State College graduate worked at the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area in Ayer.

''He was a very serious, by-the-book officer, but he cared deeply for all of his soldiers," Huther said. While Raneri and Huther often joked about the fact that she became a major a few days before he did -- which technically makes her a higher-ranking officer -- she would often turn to him with questions on military policy and trivia. ''He knew more about the Army than most of the senior officers," she said. A framed black-and-white illustration of the couple hangs over the fireplace in the living room of Huther's Milford home. It was drawn by a Vietnam veteran, and the couple's 11-month-old daughter, Isabella Nicole, points to it when her mother asks: ''Where is your daddy?" Janet Raneri calls Isabella ''a miracle baby" and said her son had been eager to start a family. ''It's so bittersweet, because here I am living out our dream by myself," Huther said.

Louis Raneri said he hopes to have a Holliston street corner named after his son soon, but Robert is already well-known locally. More than 200 people attended a dedication ceremony last May, when a building at Fort Devens was named after him.

''They don't do that for just anyone," said Vallee, the state representative. ''There's a reason why." Vallee said it was clear Raneri was well-liked by those who served with and under him. ''Everyone spoke very positively of him and said he was a very good military officer who carried out his duties to the highest level," he said.

Vallee's committee is meeting later this month to decide the fate of the bill. While it may not make it into law this time, some form of it may work its way into state law soon, he said.

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