ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s drunken-driving laws are too loose and the General Assembly should approve the more than 20 bills introduced this session to stiffen them, witnesses told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
The marquee drunken-driving legislation this session is a measure to lower the legal driving-while-intoxicated threshold from .10 to .08 blood-alcohol concentration. The committee heard that bill and more than a dozen others, including one to prohibit open containers of alcohol in the passenger compartment of a vehicle.
Maryland stands to lose $5.2 million in federal assistance for fiscal year 2004 if it doesn’t reduce its blood-alcohol-level threshold by 2003, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation. The state would also lose a $2 million federal safety incentive grant if it doesn’t comply with the law by 2003.
Last year, 205 people died in drunken driving-related accidents, said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the first of more than 30 witnesses to press their cases in a packed committee room.
“These are deaths that do not have to occur. We can stop them,” Townsend said.
Testifying in favor of the bills were members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the State Police, the Motor Vehicle Administration, the American Automobile Association and victims’ friends and families.
The new DWI threshold will not, by itself, stop drunken-driving accidents, said Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, the lead sponsor of the DWI legislation.
The Judiciary Committee should consider the drunken-driving bills as a “package,” said Davis, Townsend and Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery.
That package could include two bills outlawing open containers in the passenger compartment of a vehicle that also were heard Wednesday.
The measures would prevent “partying while driving,” said State Highway Administrator Parker F. Williams.
Because Maryland has no open container law, the federal government has forced the State Highway Administration to funnel 1.5 percent of its highway construction money into safety programs since 1998, Williams said.
Sanctioning Maryland through federal highway funds is a way for the federal government to force Maryland to comply with the .08 threshold, said Joseph A. Schwartz III, Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association lobbyist.
“This is like `Groundhog Day,’ the movie, all over again,” said Schwartz, who has opposed .08 legislation for the past three years. “Except (this time) federal carrots and sticks are put in front of the committee.”
In the comedy “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray, playing an arrogant television weathercaster, relives Groundhog Day innumerable times. Two other beverage and restaurant lobbyists and two members of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association flanked Schwartz in opposition to the DWI bill.
The five opponents who showed up to oppose the .08 legislation were outnumbered by a small army of supporters fed up with alcohol-related deaths.
“We’re asking you to take away the ability to drive from people who drive drunk,” said Anne Ferro, MVA spokeswoman.
But some committee members asked if Maryland’s two-tier drunken-driving system would make sense if the DWI threshold were reduced to .08.
Maryland now has a driving under the influence charge for drivers with a .07 blood-alcohol level, as well as the .10 standard for a charge of driving while intoxicated.
“I would like to see Maryland lose the two-tier system,” said Delegate Thomas E. “Tim” Hutchins, R-Charles, retired commander of the State Police training academy.
But Townsend and Ferro asked the committee to keep Maryland’s two-tier system intact for now.
“Reject any delay of this bill,” Ferro said. “Those who say it’s a large pill to swallow: Swallow it.”
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