ANNAPOLIS – Drunken driving opponents urged lawmakers Thursday to pass bills to increase penalties for repeat offenders, motorists with high blood-alcohol content and those who refuse blood-alcohol-concentration tests.
The Coalition To Fight Hardcore Drunk Driving announced its support for bills to increase penalties for the worst drunk drivers – motorists with a blood alcohol content of .15 or higher – and those who refuse a chemical test. The measures would also limit the use of probation-before-judgment sentences for repeat offenders and close a loophole allowing community service sentences, essentially treating those offenders as first-timers.
The announcement by the coalition, made up of three national groups and the Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition, came on the same day the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony for several drunken driving bills.
At the hearing, victims’ family members shared tragic moments and local law enforcement and prosecutors addressed shortcomings in drunken driving laws.
Shirley Johnson’s son, a Baltimore County paramedic, was killed by a drunken driver in 1979. Bill opponents, she said, “are being very shortsighted.”
Drunken driving is still a big problem in Maryland, said Delegate William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery, who called the bills “common-sense, common-ground legislation.”
With the bipartisan backing and the support of the National Transportation Safety Board, AAA Mid-Atlantic, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and The Century Council, a distilleries group, the bills, Bronrott said, have a decent chance at passage. They’ve stalled in past years, he said.
“Sometimes bills get caught up in traffic, sometimes they get caught up in being misunderstood,” Bronrott said. “The fact is drunk driving deaths … have not significantly dropped in recent years.”
Richard F. Healing, NTSB member, told the committee in written testimony the bills would help Maryland fight drunken driving.
“Based on the last five years of alcohol-related fatalities, it seems clear that the DWI control system in Maryland is not working to the degree needed to reduce these preventable tragedies,” he said.
About 41 percent nationally and 40 percent of Maryland highway deaths are alcohol-related, according to NTSB figures. In 2002, there were 17,419 alcohol-related highway deaths in the country, 265 of them local.
But hard-core drunken drivers, the NTSB said, are involved in about 48 percent of alcohol-related fatalities. Between 1983 and 1998, at least 137,338 people died in accidents involving hard-core drunken drivers.
Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said chronic drunk drivers should face proper penalties.
“This is the year that we should close the loophole,” he said. “Right now, in Maryland, it’s quite possible to be a multiple drunk driver and, with a good attorney, basically get off with community service, which is basically no punishment whatsoever. That’s outrageous.”
Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, said partisan issues would not stop the bills, which would help rid roads of dangerous drivers.
“The efforts we are launching here today are not a partisan issue, it’s not an issue between the House and the Senate, this is an issue about what’s right for Maryland to make our roadways safer.”