Like a stern parent who disciplines a child by withholding the car keys, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to keep minors from drinking by threatening to take away their driver's licenses.
Schaefer administration officials yesterday asked a House committee to approve a bill that would automatically suspend the driver's license for at least 30 days of anyone under age 21 convicted of possessing or consuming an alcoholic beverage.
That would be a departure from current state laws, which give judicial authorities the power to suspend a driver's license only for offenses directly related to driving or to the use of a driver's license.
Schaefer aides told legislators yesterday that the problem with teen drinking is great enough to warrant such action.
"The one thing that a minor cares about is his driver's license," Floyd O. Pond, executive director of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, told members of the House Judiciary Committee. "Other penalties do not work."
Surveys of students continue to show widespread alcohol consumption, Mr. Pond said. By the time Maryland teens reach 12th grade, more than half reported drinking alcohol within the previous 30 days and one-third said they'd had five or more drinks at a single sitting.
Proponents pointed out that there are already special laws to restrict the behavior of youthful drivers. Since 1977, Maryland has required driver's license applicants, age 16 or 17, to obtain a provisional license that prohibits them from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. Provisional drivers must remain free of violations for one year before they can get a regular license.
The legislature has cracked down on teen drinking by making it an offense for drivers under 21 to drive with a blood-alcohol level of .02. That reading indicates only that a person has had a drink and is relatively low when compared with the level for legal intoxication, .10.
The law went into effect four years ago, and since then the number of automobile accidents involving underage drinkers has dropped by 50 percent, said W. Marshall Rickert, head of the Motor Vehicle Administration.
The state also has the authority to suspend a driver's license of someone under age 21 who has used a license to misrepresent himself to buy liquor.
"I think there is a nexus between someone who abuses alcohol and someone who is an unsafe driver," said Mr. Rickert. "The main goal here is to take a proven deterrent -- taking away a driver's license -- and using it to send a message about teen alcohol abuse."
The length of the mandatory suspension would increase to 90 days for a second offense and one year for a third offense. The bill also would force juvenile authorities to consider drug- and alcohol-related driving offenses at a formal, rather than informal, hearing that more closely parallels the state District Court.
The proposal is supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and various law enforcement officials, and no one spoke against it at yesterday's hearing. Still, the bill is likely to face an uphill climb: Legislators have generally opposed sanctions against driver's licenses for offenses that did not involve driving.
The General Assembly has previously rejected attempts to use sanctions against driver's licenses to penalize drug abusers and teens who drop out of high school. But that hasn't dissuaded the governor, who has also proposed this year suspending driver's licenses for nonpayment of child support.
"I have reservations," said committee member Kenneth H. Masters, a Democratic delegate from Baltimore County. "There could be no end to the kind of conduct we could tie a driver's license to."
Although the American Civil Liberties Union did not testify against the measure, an official says the group opposes it.
Stuart Comstock-Gay, Maryland's ACLU director, said it would be a mistake to suspend a driver's license for any unrelated behavior. He said he also opposes mandatory penalties that don't take into account extraordinary circumstances of some defendants.
"What happens to the 19-year-old living alone who must drive to get to work?" Mr. Comstock-Gay asked. "It's a hammer to hold over people's heads, but it could have a much more detrimental effect."