By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – Despite a slew of tough new laws to reduce drunken driving, alcohol-related traffic deaths are on the rise in Maryland, earning the state “C” on a national report card released Thursday.
The Mothers Against Drunk Driving report card praised Maryland’s leaders for passing legislation to outlaw open containers, cut the blood-alcohol limit to .08 and crack down on repeat offenders. But the report also said the state’s work is less than halfway done, with only 18 laws of the 37 that MADD wants.
Maryland’s overall grade dropped since MADD’s last report card in 2000, when the state received a “B-.” The lower grade is due in part to the number of deaths caused by drunken drivers.
After several years of decline, the number of alcohol-related deaths in Maryland rose from 225 in 2000 to 290 in 2001, according to federal highway officials. The percentage of alcohol-related fatalities also rose, from 38 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2001, which was 3 percentage points higher than the national average.
But a spokeswoman for the mid-Atlantic chapter of the AAA said that Maryland should have gotten more credit for its legislative accomplishments.
“We certainly applaud MADD for bringing drunk driving once again to the forefront of people’s minds,” said Myra Wieman, the AAA spokeswoman.
“But we also want to say that in the year 2002, Maryland did an unbelievable job in the legislature. To give us a ‘C’ when we made such major strides with the legislature . . .We think that should be looked at again,” Wieman said.
Stacy Kurnot, the executive director for MADD in Maryland, said the group has already identified its top two legislative priorities for 2003 — making the refusal to take a breathalyzer test the same as failing a test, and making the penalties for vehicular manslaughter and vehicular homicide the same.
MADD is also calling on state lawmakers to increase penalties for drivers with blood-alcohol contents greater than .15; reduce the blood-alcohol limit for repeat offenders; make it illegal for underage youth to possess, buy or try to buy alcohol; and increase liability for businesses that let drunken patrons drive.
Thursday’s report card called Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee an “obstacle” to passing several more laws that MADD activists believe would help curb drunken driving. But with many new faces in the General Assembly, activists are not sure what to expect.
“One-third of the members of the legislature are new this year, so we’ll all be getting to know each other,” said Nancy Kelly, MADD’s Maryland public policy liaison.
Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, an advocate of tougher laws against drunken driving, is hopeful.
“We had a banner year this past year in Maryland,” Bronrott said. “I hope this will give use the momentum to keep going, and to put into place laws to deter drunk driving.”
Bronrott said MADD could count on support from Sen. Brian Frosh, D- Montgomery, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I’ve already talked to state Sen. Frosh about some of the gaps that exist, and he’s eager to close those gaps,” Bronrott said.
The report was issued on the eve of the busy Thanksgiving travel season, which come just days before the December holidays. Maryland State Police plan to step up enforcement during December, with more sobriety checkpoints, Lt. Bud Frank said.
Nationwide, few states fared much better than Maryland, which was one of 15 states to get a C, the same as the United States overall. Only California received a “B+,” the highest grade issued.