ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a measure to lower the drunken-driving threshold from .10 blood-alcohol concentration to .08, bowing to a federal mandate attached to millions in highway money.
The state stands to lose $5.2 million in federal highway funds in fiscal 2004 if it fails to reduce its drunken-driving threshold to .08 by 2003.
It’s been a wrangle to get the bill this far. Similar legislation died in the House Judiciary Committee three times in the past four years, but was finally approved Feb. 27, 16-5.
The full House then approved it, 116-17.
A committee amendment endorsed by the full House changed the names of drunken-driving offenses. Driving with a .08 blood-alcohol level changed from driving while intoxicated to driving under the influence because past opponents of the measure argued a person with a .08 blood-alcohol content was not intoxicated.
Judiciary retained Maryland’s two-tier drunken-driving statute, renaming the lower threshold of .07 “driving while impaired” and keeping the same penalties for both offenses: a maximum $1,000 fine and 1 year in jail.
“This bill sends a message to the public not to drink and drive,” said Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, during floor debate.
Instead of catching dangerously intoxicated drivers, the measure would incriminate casual drinkers by casting a wider net, one opponent said.
“If you’re trying to get drunk drivers off the road, what you need to do is prosecute people under current law,” said Delegate Clarence Davis, D- Baltimore, one of two delegates to oppose the bill. “What will happen is everyone in the state will become a criminal.”
Not so, said Vallario. More than 1,500 additional drunken-driving offenders could be caught next year if the blood-alcohol threshold is reduced to .08.
The bill, which the Senate still has to consider, would take effect Sept. 30, in time to save Maryland from losing $3.5 million put aside by Congress to encourage states to conform to the .08 standard.
“The federal government cannot buy my vote to make tens of thousands of Maryland residents criminals,” Davis said after the vote. “I think states have to stand firm on that.”
The measure is the centerpiece of more than 20 bills introduced this year to crack down on drunken-driving accidents, which claimed more than 200 lives last year.
For the delegate who sponsored similar legislation four times in the past five years, the bill’s passage is a relief, even if federal cash motivated most of his colleagues.
“Clearly I’m not going to be disingenuous and say that wasn’t a factor to many (delegates),” said Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, point man of this year’s proposal. “We don’t want to lose highway funds.”
Though money may have influenced several legislators, they will see the measure’s value if it finally becomes law, one supporter said.
“It’s unfortunate in that respect,” said Wendy Hamilton, national vice president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “But the bottom line is that it’s going to save lives.”