ANNAPOLIS As the General Assembly begins to debate lowering the threshold for driving while drunk, Lewie Bloom steels himself for criticism. Bloom, a Bethesda bar and restaurant owner, stands nearly alone in his industry for his support of .08 as the legal standard for determining when a driver is drunk.
“Why would I be against it?” asked the owner of Lewie’s Bar and Reed Street Restaurant. “It seems like a no-brainer. It’s so easy to kill somebody in a car. My biggest fear, because I drive home from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., is that I’m going to be killed by a drunk driver.”
The Senate’s Judicial Proceedings committee will hear testimony Wednesday on two bills that would lower Maryland’s definition of driving while intoxicated from .10 to .08. Both the governor and lieutenant governor support the measure.
Bloom will attend the hearings despite a strong lobby against the bills by his colleagues in the liquor and restaurant industries.
“I guess beer and liquor lobbyists say they’re against it because they think they’re going to sell less alcohol,” he said. “In other states (with .08 laws), the statistics show that alcohol sales have not dropped off.”
In fact, Bloom said alcohol sales increase when drinkers don’t have to worry about driving.
“What I’ve noticed is when people come in a cab or with a designated driver, they drink more,” he said.
Bloom, 44, opened his bar and adjoining restaurant two and a half years ago at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues. He also owns a construction company.
Since his bar’s beginnings, Bloom has become an ardent advocate of safe drinking policies. He and his wife, Nancy, monitor the front door of the bar and routinely call cabs for drinkers who are unable to drive.
“Well even pay for (a cab) to save a life and keep a customer,” Bloom said. “We get all of that for five bucks (the cost of the cab).”
Bloom keeps coffee brewing at the end of the night for any of the roughly 500 people who visit his bar on weekends, and he has taken seriously his mission to keep his drunken customers off the road.
“I personally have driven home some of my own customers because they were too drunk to drive,” he said. “The next day, they are so thankful. I figure I’ve made a new friend, a customer, and they didn’t get killed.”
At a .08 blood-alcohol level, Bloom said he would not consider driving.
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, said Tom Howarth, 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.
“I don’t even think the people voting on .08 really know what it means,” Bloom said. “If people realize that they can’t see the light switch on the wall, or they can’t walk a straight line, they would know they shouldn’t drive.”
Sixteen states have a .08 limit, including Virginia. The district council in Washington, D.C., has passed a similar measure, but it awaits approvals from the mayor and Congress. Attempts to pass .08 bills in the General Assembly failed in 1997 and 1998.
A reduction to .08 would save 23 lives per year, said Attorney General Joe Curran at a recent press conference.
“I look at that as having 23 more customers,” Bloom said.
Liquor and restaurant lobbyists don’t see the issue the same way.
“Even though we agree with the goal of saving lives, we don’t believe .08 is the best way to do that,” said Brendan Flanagan, spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
Legislators should focus on repeat offenders, he said. Liquor and restaurant lobbyists are not opposing the legislation for fear of losing customers.
“We think if we focus more on the judicial system, which routinely lets previous offenders go with a slap on the wrist, it’s a much more positive approach,” Flanagan said.
Approximately 80 percent of traffic fatalities in drunk driving accidents are related to repeat offenders whose blood alcohol level is .14 or higher, he said.
While the war of words begins in the General Assembly, Bloom said he has other plans. He’s asked the Maryland State Police Department for a breathalyzer to keep at the front door of his bar.
“It’s not that I don’t want people to drink,” he said. “I just don’t want those people to drive.”