ANNAPOLIS – Supporters of tougher drunken-driving laws were given a confidence boost Friday when a Senate committee approved a measure to lower the drunken-driving threshold from .10 blood-alcohol content to .08.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee also passed a bill to make the refusal to take a Breathalyzer test admissible evidence in court and another to toughen penalties against repeat offenders.
The .08 and the Breathalyzer bills were changed in committee to make them identical to the House measures, which were overwhelmingly passed in the House of Delegates.
The Senate panel’s modifications mean the bills will have a better chance of passage in the full Senate, much to the relief of Eric Gally, lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“The faster it passes, the quicker the ulcer eases,” he quipped.
The main bill would retain Maryland’s two-tier drunken-driving threshold, but would rename the two offenses. The most serious offense, driving while intoxicated, would become driving under the influence, while the lower threshold of .07 would become “driving while impaired.” Penalties for each tier would not change.
Getting here hasn’t been easy for MADD members, who saw the House Judiciary Committee kill the .08 legislation three times in the past four years.
Plus the bill barely passed Judicial Proceedings, 6-5, with the burden falling on the shoulders of Sen. Perry Sfikas, D-Baltimore, who observers called “very undecided.”
Sfikas said this year’s general consensus and lack of persistence by the bill’s opponents convinced him to vote for the measure.
At stake is $5.2 million in federal highway funds for fiscal 2004 and a $2 million federal safety incentive grant that would be withheld if Maryland fails to comply with the federal mandate by 2003.
“The bill would have been dead without the federal (mandate),” said Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil.
“It would have been nice if they had addressed it before the federal money nudged them,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, the lead sponsor of the Senate bill. But “you take it when you can get it.”
The measure would be effective Sept. 30, in time to save Maryland from losing the federal money.
Opponents of the .08 legislation were happier to see the Breathalyzer and repeat offender bills pass, saying the two measures address Maryland’s real drunken-driving problem: poor law enforcement.
“They come in with (the .08 bill) year after year to make a point,” said Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick. “But they won’t address the real issue of locking people up.”
The two other measures, however, will take care of the enforcement problem, he said.
The Breathalyzer bill would reverse Maryland law barring refusals to take the test from being used as court evidence.
For Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, toughening penalties against repeat offenders is the only real deterrent to drunken driving.
That bill is also attached to a federal mandate, and if it doesn’t pass by Oct. 1, 1.5 percent of funds appropriated to the state would have to be transferred to its highway safety programs.
Judicial Proceedings changed it Friday to conform to the federal requirements: A repeat offender would have to go to jail for at least 5 days or serve 30 days of community service and have his driver’s license suspended for one year.
The repeat offender bill’s prospects in House Judiciary Committee are bleak, Gally said. It’s “on life support.”