ANNAPOLIS – Supporters of a bill to lower Maryland’s drunken driving limit argued Wednesday that the change could save 23 lives and prevent 1,300 injuries a year in Maryland.
Lawmakers, police, medical experts and highway safety officials told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that drivers are plenty drunk when their blood-alcohol content is .08 percent.
The current standard for driving while intoxicated in Maryland is .10.
“This bill is not about social drinking, it is not even about prohibiting a person from getting drunk,” said Dr. Carl Soderstrom of the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He said it is about keeping people from getting behind the wheel after drinking.
But opponents of the bill — a coalition of restaurants, beer distributors, hotels, tourist businesses and the state beverage association — said the .08 bill targets the wrong people.
“The real problem lies in hard-core drunken drivers and repeat offenders,” said Nicholas Manis, a representative of the Maryland Beer Wholesalers.
Police and courts should concentrate on those drivers who pose the greatest risk, opponents said, noting that states with the lower .08 level do not necessarily have fewer drunken driving deaths.
But supporters in the “.08 in 98” coalition based their backing of the bill on studies that they said show all safe driving skills are dangerously impaired at the lower level.
“Virtually all drivers are impaired at .08,” said Jim Fell, chief of research and evaluation of traffic safety programs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
A 170-pound man would reach .08 after four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach and a 137-pound woman would reach .08 after three drinks in an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Do you want someone who just chugged four beers in an hour charging down the road with two tons of steel?” asked Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Betty Buck-Behney, who was hit by a drunken driver as she got off her school bus at age 7, agreed that drunks need to be taken off the road. But the beer distributor from Southern Maryland said lowering the blood-alcohol level to .08 will not accomplish that.
She said proposals to require the use of the ignition- interlock systems and to reduce the number of probations before judgment would have a greater effect.
“You do have bills in front of you that can do it,” said Buck-Behney.
“Lowering the BAC (blood-alcohol content) does not target the alcohol abuser, which is where the problems lie,” said Thomas Stone, a representative for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
A similar bill is pending in the House of Delegates and Congress is considering a bill to reduce highway funding to states that don’t conform to the .08 blood-alcohol level.
“I don’t know what the vote is here, but I know it has had problems in the House,” said Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s and vice chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Virginia is one of the 15 states that consider .08 as driving while intoxicated, and the only one of Maryland’s neighbors to have the lower limit. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C., all set their level at .10.