BETHESDA – Reckless drivers beware: Starting this week, there will be tougher penalties for hit-and-run, repeat drunken driving and passengers drinking alcohol in a car.
The three laws were approved to comply with federal regulations, allowing Maryland to keep roughly $14 million in federal highway funding.
All three bills passed through the Maryland General Assembly with little or no opposition.
One bill starting today, makes it unlawful for passengers in a vehicle to possess an open container of alcohol.
“A driver can no longer avoid a drinking-and-driving citation by handing off an open beer can to the passenger when the trooper pulls a car over,” said Delegate Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery, a chief sponsor of the law. “The open container law will make our highways safer by stopping the rolling parties going down the road.”
Petzold and other lawmakers attended a news conference Friday at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. The bill passed 122-9 in the House of Delegates and unanimously in the Senate. However, Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, calls the bill “absolutely ludicrous” and “totally asinine.”
“This totally runs against the whole designated driver concept,” Kelly said. “Why get a ticket if you’re being responsible for someone else?”
Another new law taking effect today is the repeat offender drunken driver law, which only three House lawmakers opposed.
If a driver is convicted of drunken driving more than once in five years, the new law requires that driver’s license be suspended for a year.
Repeat offenders also will be required to participate in an ignition interlock program for up to a year after they regain their license. That program prevents the offender from starting his car until he passes a Breathalyzer exam.
The bill also increases jail time and community service requirements for repeat offenders.
“There are individuals who haven’t gotten the message the first time; they may not have gotten the message the second time,” said Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, chief sponsor.
Highly publicized hit-and-run accidents in recent years prompted the law increasing penalties for the offense. In the past, a driver who fled a fatal or life-threatening crash in Maryland could be charged with a misdemeanor. Beginning Tuesday, a hit-and-run becomes a felony.
The law applies to people who leave the scene of an accident when they knew or should have known the accident could result in death or “serious bodily injury.”
Penalties vary depending on the severity of the injuries caused, with fines ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 and prison time from a year to 10 years.
Lt. Col. William Arrington of the Maryland State Police cautioned: “There are no more warnings . . . You are about to encounter drunk-driving enforcement like you’ve never seen before.”
In 2000, alcohol-related accidents accounted for 38 percent of all state highway deaths.