ANNAPOLIS For the third time in as many years, Maryland legislators will try to make .08 the blood alcohol level at which a driver is considered drunk.
Backers are optimistic that this time around they’ll be successful in dropping the limit from .10. Committees have changed, but more important, President Clinton has promised highway funds to states that adopt the lower limit.
“I think all parties have made a good case for it this year,” said Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will review the legislation. “Also, this time highway funds are connected to it, which is important.”
Last year, President Clinton approved a bill giving additional highway funds, totaling more than $2 million annually for five years, to those states that adopt a .08 blood-alcohol limit for drivers.
“That money surely could be used to make our highways safer,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, a strong supporter of the legislation.
“The language in my bill specifically states that we want to be eligible for the highway funds,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, co-author of one of the three .08 bills expected to be introduced this year. Ruben co-authored similar legislation in 1997 and 1998 as well.
Two of the bills have not yet been introduced, so it’s unclear what the differences among them will be.
On average, a 170-pound man drinking four 12-ounce cans of beer in an hour on an empty stomach would have a blood- alcohol level of .08, according to Tom Howarth, Washington, D.C., liaison with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. A 137- pound woman would reach the limit by drinking three 12-ounce cans of beer under the same circumstances.
Sixteen states have a .08 limit, including Virginia, according to Cathy Chase, director of state affairs with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a lobbying group supporting the legislation. The district council in Washington, D.C., has passed a similar measure that is awaiting the mayor’s signature and approval by Congress.
Attempts to pass similar bills failed in 1997 and 1998. Both times, they did not move beyond the House and Senate judicial committees, the same committees to hear this year’s .08 bills. Now, however, delegates and senators are resurrecting the bills, hoping that different committee compositions will mean a favorable vote.
“I do think it can get passed this year,” said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, author of one .08 bill. “We have a strong contingent in the House as well as the Senate this year that will help to get it passed. I think last year we had a problem with that.”
Gov. Parris Glendening supported past bills and supports current efforts, according to Donald Vandrey, with the governor’s press office.
“He’s very much in favor of the reduction of a legal limit in an effort to save lives,” he said.
“The U.S. has the most lenient definition of driving while intoxicated. This .08 law would draw a very solid, legal line,” Bronrott said. “That’s not pulling a number out of a hat. It’s based on medical community numbers and scientific research.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a group that has lobbied strongly for the past bills, supports the current legislation, saying that more than 600 lives could be saved annually if all states enacted .08 laws.
“We’re going to give this everything we have,” said Annie Powell, executive director of the Central Maryland Chapter of MADD. “This is our main focus this year.”
Not all groups are supportive, though. The National Beer Wholesalers Association in Alexandria opposes .08 legislation, citing a Highway Safety Research Center Report. The November 1998 report, prepared for the National Highway Safety Administration, evaluated North Carolina’s .08 law that was enacted in 1993.
The report found lowering the blood-alcohol limit on drivers had “no clear effect on alcohol-related crashes.”
“We believe .08 does not save lives,” said Gary Zizka, a local representative of the beer wholesalers. “If enforcement efforts were focused on hard-core drunk drivers, it would save more lives.”
Liquor and hospitality groups are afraid they are the targets of such laws, but that is not the case, Ruben said.
“This is not a drinking bill,” Ruben said. “This is a drinking-and-driving bill. This is not targeting social drinkers. All you have to do is not get behind the wheel.”
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