ANNAPOLIS – Legislators must pass aggressive laws this session to help reduce a growing number of drunken driving fatalities in the state and avoid losing federal funding for state highways, government leaders said at a news conference Tuesday.
Bills to prohibit open containers of alcohol in cars, increase penalties for repeat and excessively drunken drivers and encourage roadside breath tests are necessary to reduce drunken driving fatalities in Maryland, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said.
“We won’t let (drunken driving) stand,” Townsend said. “We’re saying today that we’re going to toughen our laws . . . and we’re going to make sure that those laws are going to be enforced.”
The state could also lose nearly $15 million in federal funding for the state’s highways next year if the open-container and repeat-offender laws fail, Townsend said.
Federal statutes require states to have certain repeat intoxicated driver and open-container alcohol laws in place or risk having a portion of their federal highway construction funds redirected into other state safety activities each year.
Maryland laws do not address these issues, and the federal government could require the state to spend 3 percent of federal roads money, nearly $15 million, on safety programs rather than construction, if the bills are rejected.
The measures come one year after Maryland passed two significant drunken- driving laws, lowering the blood-alcohol content for drunken driving from .10 to .08 and permitting prosecutors to advise courts when defendants refuse to take a breath test.
A bill targeting repeat offenders would increase penalties from two days in jail or 80 hours of community service to five days in jail or 30 days of community service and impose a one-year license suspension.
A second bill would prohibit open containers of alcohol in “readily accessible” passenger areas of vehicles.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia comply with federal statutes regarding repeat-offender laws, while 34 states and the District comply with open-container laws.
A third bill would impose stricter penalties on excessively drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher.
The “super drunk” bill would suspend a driver’s license for at least 60 days for first-time offenders and double it for subsequent offenses. The measure also would impose a “zero tolerance” sanction on subsequent offenders, meaning they can be prosecuted if their blood-alcohol content is above 0.0 on a traffic stop.
State law does not now distinguish between .08 and higher.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 65 percent of all alcohol-related traffic deaths involve drivers with .15 or higher blood- alcohol content, said Delegate Mark K. Shriver, D-Montgomery, the bill’s chief sponsor.
“Clearly, if you are a repeat offender and you’re a super drunk,” Shriver said, “the penalties ought to be super high.”
Shriver’s bill would also impose stiffer sanctions on suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take a blood-alcohol content test, suspending their license for one year.
About 30 percent of drivers asked to take a blood-alcohol test do not, preferring to challenge police in court, Shriver said.
“(Blood alcohol content) tests are the best evidence that we have in prosecuting drunk drivers,” he said. “We’re closing a major loophole here.”
Col. David B. Mitchell of the Maryland State Police agreed.
“People aren’t taking (the test),” Mitchell said. “They’d rather take their chances against a trooper or a police officer or a deputy in testimony than a BAC test.”
All three bills are scheduled to go before the House Judiciary Committee Feb. 27, while companion bills in the Senate will go before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on March 5.