New motor vehicle safety initiatives due to be considered by legislature

January 18, 1991|By Doug Birch Peter Jensen of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

On a clear June evening in 1986, James Nichols was driving his GMC Jimmy sport-utility vehicle north near Loch Raven Reservoir when a southbound moving van jackknifed, swept toward his vehicle and slammed it sideways through a stone wall.

"The car just collapsed around me," recalled Mr. Nichols, now 44. "I was wearing my seat belt, or I would have been killed, no question."

Rescue workers spent 2 1/2 hours cutting Mr. Nichols out of the metal. A helicopter flew him to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he spent a month recovering from a broken hip, crushed thigh, punctured leg, cracked left forearm, cuts and bruises.

Since the date of that crash, a lot has changed, improving the odds for other drivers who might find themselves in Mr. Nichols' shoes.

By coincidence, the state's mandatory seat-belt law took effect one day after Mr. Nichols' crash. In recent years, the state has purchased newer and faster helicopters for the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Maryland truck drivers must pass more stringent exams to be licensed. Even the section of Jarrettsville Pike where the accident happened has been redesigned and rebuilt.

Those and other safety initiatives -- including tougher drunken-driving laws -- have helped lower the state's annual highway death toll from a historic high of 830 deaths in 1987 to about 720 in 1990, state highway safety officials say. The number of drunken-driving arrests declined 9 percent from 1989 to 1990.

The advances came despite an increasing number of licensed )) drivers and registered vehicles and a 35 percent increase in miles driven on Maryland roads.

To keep the death rate declining, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is expected to submit legislation this week to make the state's existing mandatory seat belt law subject to primary enforcement, giving police the power to stop a car and issue a citation when the driver or the right-hand, front-seat passenger is not wearing a belt.

Now, the seat belt law is a secondary enforcement tool. Police can write tickets for seat-belt violations only after a car is stopped for another offense.

David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer, said the governor will also seek to require children as old as 10 to wear seat belts no matter where they sit in the car. Now, state law requires all infants up to age 3 to be carried in a safety seat, and all children 3 to 5 to be strapped in a seat belt.

More than 65 percent of car occupants in Maryland wear seat belts, state transportation officials say, the second-highest usage rate in the country. Hawaii, with 80 percent, has the highest. That state has a primary seat belt law and vigorous enforcement.

A Maryland State Police spokesman said 200 to 300 people died here last year because they weren't wearing seat belts.

The governor has pledged to support one measure, being pushed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and sponsored by Sen. Vernon F. Boozer, R-Baltimore County, that would make it a crime to carry an open container of an alcoholic beverage anywhere in the passenger compartment of a vehicle.

(The state has an open-container law on the books, Mr. Iannucci said. But MADD asserts that it cannot beenforced unless a police officer sees the driver drinking out of the open bottle.)

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg said yesterday that the administration would "very strongly" support a bill, sponsored by a legislator, that would require adult motorcyclists to wear helmets while riding.

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing yesterday on the bill, which has been defeated by motorcycle groups each session for the past 12 years.

Supporters maintain that this year could be different because the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore, and new committee members are )) more sympathetic. A vote on the bill could come as early as next week.

Some citizens groups think the administration could go further with highway safety proposals.

Evelyn D. Armiger, MADD's state public policy liaison, said Maryland needs new weapons in the fight against impaired drivers and calculates that 43 states have a tougher array of drunken-driving laws. But for tactical reasons, she said, MADD is focusing its efforts on the open-container law.

Several administration officials say this is not a year for sweeping new safety initiatives.

"We think the real payoff is in making the programs that are

already there as efficient as possible," said Dennis R. Atkins, the governor's highway safety representative.

W. Marshall Rickert, state motor vehicle administrator, said the state is still learning how best to implement a law that took effect Jan. 1, 1990, giving police the power to confiscate on the spot the licenses of drivers who either flunk or refuse to take a sobriety test.

So far, that law has been extremely effective, Mr. Rickert said. After rising for more than a decade, the number of drunken-driving arrests dropped in 1990 by about 9 percent from the previous year.

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