ANNAPOLIS – Come Sept. 30, it will take fewer drinks for drivers to break Maryland’s drunken-driving laws, after Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a law Tuesday reducing the state’s standard from .10 blood-alcohol content to .08.
“It will make our roads safer,” said Glendening, making it the first of more than 100 bills he signed just a few hours after the General Assembly adjourned for the year Monday.
Under pressure from a federal mandate attached to millions in federal money, passing the lower threshold became one of state lawmakers’ legislative priorities.
Signing the bill into law saved the state from losing $5.2 million in federal highway funds in fiscal 2004. But “most importantly, this will save lives,” Glendening said.
The new law will rename the driving-while-intoxicated charge to driving while under the influence and reduce the threshold for that charge from .10 blood-alcohol content to .08.
The General Assembly 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.
“A lot of lives have been lost by .08 drivers that have not paid the penalty,” said Wendy Hamilton, national vice president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
More than 200 people were killed in drunken-driving accidents last year, according to the State Police.
“I don’t care how much they drink,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, lead sponsor of the Senate bill. “I’m just asking them not to get behind the wheel of a car. It becomes a lethal weapon.”
Col. David B. Mitchell, State Police superintendent, said he hopes the measure will both help police catch more drunken drivers and act as a deterrent.
Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, who opposed the measure, said more people who are not necessarily intoxicated or impaired at .08 “will fall victim” to the new law.
“Everybody has a different tolerance” to alcohol, he said. Toxicologists testified in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that most people are not intoxicated at .08, he said.
Similar legislation died in the House Judiciary Committee three times in the past four years. This year, several factors persuaded the committee to pass the measure.
“I think that a combination of the threat of losing federal funds, along with the continued public pressure and focus by the media, helped to propel (the bill) to success,” said Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, a Judiciary member.
More than 20 bills proposing tougher drunken-driving laws were introduced this session, but few passed.
One that did merit Glendening’s signature Tuesday will allow a driver’s refusal to take a breath test to be used as evidence in court.
The new law closes a loophole that has allowed lawyers who defend repeat offenders to advise their clients to decline to take the test, said Mahlon G. Anderson, spokesman for the American Automobile Association’s Mid-Atlantic chapter.
“Now that’s gone,” Anderson said. “That should significantly aid prosecutors against drunken-drivers.”
Proponents of stricter drunken-driving laws were not entirely successful this year, as a measure to toughen penalties for repeat offenders died in the House Judiciary Committee.
“It’s the one thing missing in the tool box,” Anderson said.
Too often, convicted drunken-drivers get back behind the wheel after being given soft sentences, Anderson said.
“For those,” Mitchell said, “we say: `We’ll be back next year.'”