ANNAPOLIS With 12 House bills and five Senate bills proposed this session, drunken driving law reform seems certain for Maryland.
Possible law changes include lower legal blood-alcohol limits, harsher penalties and more restricted behavior. Ten of the House bills will be heard in the Judiciary Committee next week. None of the others have been voted out of committee.
Legislators said they hope the large number of bills will send a stronger message to Marylanders that such behavior will not be tolerated. In 1998, police officers arrested more than 24,000 state residents for drunken driving, said Lt. Bill Tower, commander of traffic operations with Maryland State Police.
“Drunk driving is the most frequently committed violent crime in our country,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D- Montgomery, co-sponsor of four of this year’s DWI bills. “Clearly, this is an issue taxpayers and residents in Maryland are concerned about.”
Nationally, more than 16,000 automobile deaths in 1997 were alcohol-related, totaling 39 percent of all traffic deaths, according to the latest available statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
This was a 32 percent reduction from 10 years ago. In 1987, more than 23,600 traffic deaths were alcohol-related, 51 percent of the total automobile deaths.
“There is an increase in road safety issues (this session) because we’ve heard the voices of concerned citizens who want government to step in,” Bronrott said.
Maryland’s numbers are below the national average. In 1997, 608 people died in automobile accidents in Maryland, the fewest in 30 years. Thirty-six percent of the fatal accidents involved alcohol.
“Over the past two decades, (the legislature) has taken an active role in targeting drunk drivers,” Bronrott said. “A lot of lives have been saved with the laws passed.”
Several DWI bills are expected to receive positive committee votes, some sponsors said, but they didn’t know how the bills will fare on the House and Senate floors.
The most hotly debated issue this session centers on lowering the blood alcohol level at which a driver is considered drunk. The current level is .1, and legislators tried unsuccessfully for a reduction to .08 for the past two years. Virginia and Washington approved similar laws.
Two Senate bills and two House bills address the issue this year. Supporters said they hope the promise of millions of dollars in additional federal highway funds for lowering the limit and media attention will be the incentives that tip the balance in favor of .08.
“It is my earnest hope that Maryland will not be one of the last to enact better types of drunk driving legislation,” said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, one of the sponsors of .08.
Enacting .08 legislation is the single most important drunken driving issue for state police, Tower said, crediting it with bringing more attention to the DWI problem.
“That, in itself, decreases the number of drunk drivers,” he said. “We’ve seen that in other states.”
Seven of this year’s DWI bills increase penalties for drunken driving. While five increase punishments for repeat offenders, two House bills require harsher penalties for drivers who refuse to submit to a blood or breath test, a common problem for police officers.
“We experience a 25 percent refusal rate,” Tower said. “That’s over 6,200 cases a year where we don’t have a test to take to court. It makes driving while intoxicated more difficult to prove in court.”
In an unconventional measure, Delegate Tony Fulton, D- Baltimore, submitted legislation that would force DWI offenders to sport a license plate with a symbol identifying their crime.
This is not the legislator’s first time proposing such a bill, but the lack of legislative support doesn’t provide much hope that the bill will become law.
Another legislative effort focuses on restricting behavior.
Matching House and Senate bills extend the state’s open container prohibition. Currently, drivers are forbidden to have an open alcoholic beverage in a vehicle. The new law prohibits both drivers and passengers from having them.
While all of these efforts will not result in laws, Bronrott said he hopes the added interest from legislators and attention from the public will propel some of the bills forward.
“A lot of bills targeting drunk drivers are introduced in Annapolis each year. The sad fact is that far too few have seen the light of day,” Bronrott said. “A lot of us hope that there is a stronger feeling toward these types of bills this session.”