Driving while drunk is essentially like being behind the wheel of a loaded gun that can kill in a split second.

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Compounding an already horrible situation is drunk driving with a child in the car. A bill sponsored by Assembly Law and Public Safety Chairman Charles Mainor to increase the penalties for driving drunk with a minor as a passenger in the motor vehicle was released Monday by an Assembly panel.

Mainor is also a Jersey City police detective. He explains, "As a police officer for the last 25 years I've been to many accidents where the driver has been drunk and there has been a child in the car and the punishment was minor." Mainor says once it was a baby in the car. Fortunately that child was fine, but it might not have worked out that way.

Under current law, a parent or guardian who is convicted of drunk driving is guilty of a disorderly persons offense if, at the time of the violation, the parent or guardian has a minor as a passenger in the motor vehicle. A disorderly persons offense is punishable by imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

Under Mainor's bill the parent or guardian would be guilty of a crime of the fourth degree under the bill if the violation results in bodily injury to the minor. Fourth degree crimes are punishable by imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

"Driving drunk is irresponsible in any circumstance, but it's even more offensive to do so with a child in the vehicle," says Mainor. "A disorderly persons offense is not enough for driving drunk with a minor. We need to send a stronger message that we find such dangerous behavior completely unacceptable."

The parent or guardian would be guilty of a third degree crime under the bill if the violation results in serious bodily injury to the minor. Third degree crimes are punishable by imprisonment of three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. The bill defines "bodily injury" as physical pain, illness or any impairment of physical condition, while "serious bodily injury" is defined as bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.

Mainor explains, "Parents or guardians have a responsibility to protect the children under their watch. It's incredibly irresponsible to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. If they choose to operate a vehicle under the influence and their irresponsibility causes serious injury to the passenger, then they should be ready to face the consequences."