ANNAPOLIS – Large-scale DWI reform seems dead for the year, with the rejection in the House of several bills targeting drunken drivers, including two to lower the blood alcohol level at which drivers are considered intoxicated.
Eight bills to reform drunken driving laws were spurned Friday by the House Judiciary Committee, dashing supporters’ hopes that this year would be known for its attack on drunken driving.
“We are looking for every reasonable, rational way to fight the war against drunk driving in our state, and right now we are in a stalemate,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, co-sponsor of three of the bills receiving unfavorable reports. “The drunk drivers are winning.”
The biggest disappointment went to supporters of two bills to lower the level at which drivers are considered drunk from .1 to .08.
For the third time in as many years, the legislation hit a dead end, despite the promise of more than $2 million annually for five years in additional federal highway funds and support from the governor and lieutenant governor.
“The governor feels that the bills are important to protect the lives of all Marylanders, and he was very disappointed that the bills were killed in the Judiciary Committee,” said Donald Vandrey, with the governor’s press office.
Maryland now has a two-tier drunken driving standard. While the state has a current DWI blood alcohol level of .1, it also has a .07 level for driving under the influence.
With these regulations, new laws should deal with stricter enforcement of existing laws and higher penalties for drivers whose blood alcohol level is above .1, said Delegate Donald Murphy, R-Baltimore County, who opposed the .08 legislation.
“With .07 we can still take these people off the street, and we can still put them in jail,” he said. “We already have stricter laws than most states, but nobody’s getting the full penalty anyway. We need to enforce the laws we have.”
Senators reviewing two matching .08 bills in the Judicial Proceedings Committee expect to dismiss them, ending the .08 debate for another year.
“On the Senate side, the chairman’s rule is we don’t take on bills that don’t pass on the House side,” said Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, vice chairman of the committee. “They will get an unfavorable report.”
Supporters blame the bills’ demise on the new makeup of the committee. Ten delegates were new to the Judiciary Committee, and six of them voted against .08.
“The new delegates clearly were enough to swing the vote,” said Russell Butler, lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “We will have to do a better job of educating people, particularly the new members.”
Delegates also voted against several other bills to increase penalties for DWI-related crimes, including punishments for drivers who refuse to submit to a blood or breath test.
Legislation requiring convicted drunken drivers to have a license plate advertising their crime and setting mandatory sentences for them died in committee as well.
A House bill and a Senate bill adding harsher penalties for repeat offenders did receive approval from both judicial committees, however, and legislators expect those bills to become law.
Bill sponsors and supporters plan to raise their issues again next year, particularly .08.
“As long as I’m in the legislature, the .08 bill’s going to come back in some way or fashion,” said Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s.
“I will try again,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery. “I’m not giving up until .08 passes.”