WASHINGTON – Maryland has slipped in a ranking of state efforts to fight drunken driving, according to a national group that said the state has not done enough to pass new laws.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving said Tuesday that while Maryland has continued to strictly enforce its current drunken driving laws, it needs to do more, specifically lowering the legal blood-alcohol content to .08.
“There is a dangerous public perception that the fight against drunk driving has been won,” said Karolyn Nunnallee, MADD’s national president. “We cannot fall into that complacent trap. Obviously some states have been more successful than others.”
MADD’s “Rating the States Survey” was released Tuesday, on the eve of one of the busiest travel holidays of the year. It said Maryland fell from a B+ in 1996 to a B- today, based on ratings of law enforcement, fatality trends, political leadership and several other aspects.
Maryland was one of 13 states to earn a B- in the survey. California was the only state to receive an A, with Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota each receiving a D+, the worst grade given in the survey.
Maryland was automatically denied an A because it does not have the .08 law, one of three required by MADD for a state to receive the highest mark. The other two — letting police pull over drivers who are not wearing a seat belt and immediately suspending the license of a driver who fails a blood-alcohol test — have been adopted by the state since 1996. But Maryland has resisted attempts to lower its legal blood-alcohol limit.
“Maryland needs to pass .08,” said Wendy Hamilton, MADD’s Maryland public policy liaison. “If Maryland is going to move forward in its fight against drunk driving, legislative leaders have to step up to the plate and pass these issues out of committee.”
Hamilton specifically blamed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee for blocking key legislation, including the .08 blood-alcohol limit.
State Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, said that some members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee felt a .08 law was unnecessary because the state already presumes a driver is “under the influence” if he has a .07 blood-alcohol level. The limit for the more serious offense of driving while intoxicated is a blood-alcohol level of 0.10.
But Hamilton said that Maryland’s law requires additional evidence for a person to be convicted of driving under the influence at .07. MADD prefers the “per se” laws in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia, which allow a conviction at .08 without corroborating evidence.
Green, who is vice-chairman of Judicial Proceedings, said he expects a .08 bill to return to the legislature, possibly as soon as next year.
“It’ll come back,” Green said. “MADD’s an important lobby around here.”
Although MADD gave the state a grade of B for law enforcement, it said police agencies need to increase their use of sobriety checkpoints.
But Maryland State Police Lt. Bill Tower said enforcement has already improved.
“We have increased enforcement over the last three years, including sobriety checkpoints,” said Tower, commander of traffic operations for the state police. “Already this year, we’ve done more than last year altogether.”
Tower said police have also fought for tougher laws.
“Last year, we supported .08 in the legislature,” he said. “Enforcement is only one part of the solution. If we can deter folks from drinking and driving at all … that’s obviously much better than picking up the pieces afterward.”
MADD estimates that 1,592 lives could be saved each year if every state adopted its top three priority laws.
The group announced a new goal Tuesday of lowering drunken driving fatalities to 11,000 per year by 2005. In 1998, 15,935 Americans, including 203 from Maryland, died in alcohol-related crashes, according to MADD.