ANNAPOLIS – A federal mandate to lower the drunken-driving limit to a blood-alcohol level of .08 nationwide has some legislators optimistic the standard will pass in Maryland, where it has repeatedly failed.
Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, tried five times to pass a bill in the General Assembly she said will save lives, but the measure never made the floor because of unfavorable reports by House and Senate judicial committees.
Opponents argued that the state already has strict laws against drunken driving, and new laws are not necessary.
“They say we’re going to hurt the social drinkers, which is not true,” Ruben said. “I think that’s an excuse.”
Maryland has a two-tier system for drunken-driving offenses. Drivers who record .07 on a breathalyzer may be charged with driving under the influence, and face two-month license suspension and a $500 fine; those recording .10 may be charged with driving while intoxicated, carrying up to a one-year suspension and a $1,000 fine.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have a .08 standard, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Maryland reported 590 traffic deaths last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and an estimated 179 of them alcohol-related. A majority of those deaths, 137, were caused by a driver with a blood-alcohol content greater than .10. In 42 cases, the driver’s blood-alcohol level registered between .01 and .09.
The federal government previously offered incentives to states that lowered the drunken-driving standard to .08, amounting to roughly $3 million annually in additional transportation funding for Maryland.
But in September, President Clinton signed a bill making .08 a requirement and penalizing states that do not adopt the new standard by 2004. Maryland could lose up to $55 million if it does not change the law by 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Proponents of lowering Maryland’s limit said the measure is intended to save lives, but the threat of losing federal funding could add an extra push.
“The public is getting increasingly frustrated and angry at the horrible loss of life associated with driving under the influence,” Gov. Parris N. Glendening said in a recent interview. “So much so, that a rather conservative Congress has actually enacted the laws.”
Glendening said he and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will continue to support .08, and Townsend will testify in favor of it this session.
“I hope the public influence as well as the practicality of losing that money will come together and help us get this through,” the governor said.
Members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee defended their votes against the lower limit last session.
“I’m not out to protect the drunk driver on the highway,” said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel. Jimeno might favor a straight .08 standard, he said, but not with the same two-tiered system, which would lower the driving under the influence level to .06.
“I think what we’ve had is good,” Jimeno said. “It’s proven to change driving behavior.”
The problem is not the lower blood-alcohol levels, but repeat offenders and drivers with high alcohol concentration, other opponents argue. The Legislature would be better served increasing the penalties for drunken-driving offenses and providing more education, said Thomas B. Stone Jr., a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
“You’re just not addressing what our problem is,” Stone said.
“Police say it’s good to have (a two-tier) system to give the law enforcement agencies a little bit of leeway” in considering the person’s past history and other factors, said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, another member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The federal mandate allows states to get a refund of lost funds if they pass .08 by 2007.
Strong opposition from groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Governors’ Association and the Council of State Governments could result in a change in the federal requirement before any states are penalized.