EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Sherri Branca spent the past several days without any sleep, worrying about a new law named after her son, Ricci, who was killed by an extremely drunken driver in 2006.

Branca had worked for two and a half years advocating for "Ricci's Law," a measure she hopes will help prevent other parents from sharing the agony of losing a child.

Her mission ended in her Florida Avenue home Thursday afternoon as acting Gov. Stephen M. Sweeney signed Ricci's Law on her kitchen table.

Sherri Branca cried, then hugged and kissed Sweeney. She and her husband were surrounded by friends and other politicians when the law became official.

"It's been a lot of running around, but it's worth it," said Branca, who, along with her husband, Ricci Sr., wore sky-blue T-shirts printed with their son's photograph. "To save someone else's child or loved one from a drunk driver, it's definitely worth it."

State lawmakers approved the legislation Monday. Sweeney, acting on behalf of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who is on vacation, provided the final signature that made the bill a law.

Ricci's Law requires first-time convicted drunken drivers with a blood alcohol level above 0.15 percent to install an ignition interlock into their vehicles for six months to a year. The cell-phone-sized device, which is similar to a Breathalyzer, prevents a drunken driver from starting an engine. Repeat offenders will need to have the lock for one to three years.

Sherri, her husband, Ricci Sr., and daughter, Adriene, had traveled to Trenton countless times to push for the law inspired by Ricci Jr.

The 17-year-old was riding his bicycle to Ocean City with friends when a car driven by Ocean City resident Stephen French ran off the road. French, now 57, admitted in a plea agreement that he had just finished at least 10 glasses of wine. His blood-alcohol content was 0.339 percent.

New Jersey joined 28 other states that have some sort of mandatory interlock law, according to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Web site. The Branca family found out about the device when Ricci Sr. saw a television program that showed New Mexico passing a law for offenders with a 0.08 blood alcohol level.

Sweeney said all new vehicles should be equipped with ignition interlocks as a safety measure.

"This should be the start, like airbags and seat belts," he said. Sweeney added that Corzine sent his regards and wished he could have been present for the signing.

Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, emphasized that Ricci's Law is a bipartisan effort that will ensure the teenager's death was not in vain. Albano went through a similar situation when he lost his son in a 2001 accident and later created Michael's Law, which requires prison sentences for third-time drunken-driving offenders.

The other political supporters at the signing ceremony included state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, Assemblymen John Amodeo and Vince Polistina, both R-Atlantic, and township Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough.

Adriene Branca, Ricci's sister, said Ricci's law "is a step in the right direction," and Ricci Sr. thanked all of the supporters who have been with them since the beginning.

Sherri Branca said the family's next step is to make Ricci's Law a national policy and to tighten the regulation's blood alcohol level to 0.08 percent - New Jersey's drunken driving limit. An earlier version of the bill was modified after alcohol industry and tavern lobbyists argued that the lock penalty was hard on first-time offenders.

In an interview after the signing, Sherri Branca said the pain of her son's loss is "always going to be there, no matter what you do. But you do what you've got to do and make it better for other people."

"The biggest part for me, big Ricci and Adriene, is without all the support from family and friends, and the love, we would not have gotten through it."

Contact Michelle Lee:

609-272-7256

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