ANNAPOLIS – Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend sent a stern message to drunken drivers earlier this year: “If you think you can tempt fate, we’re going to get you.”
Yet, despite support from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, State Police and legislative leaders, many components of a hefty drunken-driving package were killed in committee and most that passed were watered down and pushed through because significant federal funds were on the line.
Efforts to “change the culture” of drunken driving in Maryland by stiffening penalties have foundered in the General Assembly the last three years, while the number of alcohol-related fatalities on the state’s highways has risen.
There were 225 alcohol-related deaths on the state’s highways in 2000, 202 in 1999, and from 1998 to 1999, drunken-driving deaths increased 26 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Townsend and some legislators urged tougher laws this session to prevent “falling behind” in the battle against drunken driving, but the House Judiciary Committee again impeded the measures.
The committee, laden with conservative lawyers and led by Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, is well-known for annually killing most drunken-driving bills. The panel gave the legislation another cool reception this year, but did pass two priority bills to salvage $15 million in federal funds for state highway construction.
Congress passed legislation in 2000 restricting federal highway funding unless states passed new drunken-driving measures that strengthen penalties on repeat offenders and ban open containers of alcohol in cars. The money could be used for highway safety programs, but not for construction.
Vallario’s committee amended the open container bill to make it a civil, rather than criminal, offense. The committee also reduced the fine from $500 to $25, with no points for a driver that could lead to a license suspension or higher insurance premiums.
Supporters made the best of the move. “The open container legislation made an important statement that it’s not acceptable in Maryland to drive with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the bottle,” Townsend said. “It is a good step, but not the final step.”
Backers of tough drunken-driving measures outwardly expressed perfunctory gratitude to the committee for “putting something on the books.” But when pressed, they complained of the committee’s “gutting” amendments and its continued resistance to pass substantive legislation.
Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the open container bill, called the $25 fine “pitiful,” but added, “any kind of penalty sends a message, and the message has to get out.”
Others were not as diplomatic.
“It’s a slap in the face to victims,” said Wendy J. Hamilton, national president-elect of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “We’re glad they passed the bill, but (the fine) is a joke.”
Opponents argued that responsible drivers would too often be victimized, and the bill unnecessarily infringed on the freedom of passengers to drink in a car. The committee rejected it two of the past three years.
That logic held no credence with supporters.
“To have a rolling keg party going down the road infringes on the rights of everybody else on the road,” Forehand said.
The repeat offender measure will boost mandatory jail time for second-time drunk drivers to five days from 48 hours and to 10 days for subsequent offenses, and also impose a one-year suspension of the offender’s driver’s license.
Imprisonment could mean home detention, a penalty Delegate Donald E. Murphy, R-Howard, called the equivalent of telling a repeat offender, “Go to your room.”
Murphy, the only House member to vote against the repeat offender bill, said current laws grant judges the power to send repeat offenders to jail, but those judges free them with a slap on the wrist.
The Judiciary Committee has done more than any other to combat drunken driving, Murphy said, and supporters should redirect their ire at the state’s judges.
“Ask the judicial branch to start to enforce the laws that we put on the books year in and year out,” Murphy said. “Tell the judges to do their job and we won’t have to pass laws like this in the future.”
The bills would have had a slim chance, supporters said, if federal funds were not on the line.
Supporters realize Vallario’s committee will pass only so much drunken- driving legislation each year, and these bills were priorities this session, said Delegate Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery, chief sponsor of the House open container bill and Judiciary Committee member.
Townsend plans to continue her fight for tougher drunken-driving laws in her soon-to-be-announced campaign for governor, said Michael Sarbanes, her spokesman.
Her top priority will be the “super drunk” bill, which would impose stricter penalties on drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher, Sarbanes said. Such drivers are responsible for about 65 percent of all alcohol-related traffic deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to sign both bills.