Required lesson on alcohol, driving


July 26, 1993

The fervent wish of instructor Tom Whalen is that the 11 people seated before him will never drink or take drugs before driving a car.

As wishes go, it's a toughie. Two-thirds of men and 43 percent of women responding to a recent national survey admitted they sometimes drink and drive. Alcohol is linked to more than 22,000 traffic deaths a year.

But for the first time in history, Mr. Whalen is getting a chance to warn Marylanders who have never held a driver's license or attended driver education about the dangers of drunken or drugged driving.

For the next three hours, the former city traffic officer will lecture, coax, quiz and entertain the students seated in a windowless basement conference room of the Day's Inn Inner Harbor hotel.

Together, they will explore the dangers of driving under the influence in considerable detail.

"Alcohol affects our ability to make quick, snappy decisions and we need that ability out there on the road," Mr. Whalen instructs his class. "When the car in front of you has its brake lights on, we have to react."

"At 50 miles per hour, a second of indecision equals 75 feet. That doesn't give you much margin for error."

Since July 1, Maryland requires all first-time driver's license applicants age 18 or older to attend the 3-hour drug and alcohol education course. It's not unlike the one-day remedial instruction required of repeat traffic offenders.

About 22,000 of the 110,000 annual driver's license applicants will be required to attend the class, the Motor Vehicle Administration estimates.

The goal is to produce safer drivers. State law says 16- and 17-year-olds must pass a 36-hour driver's education course -- including some instruction on drunken driving -- but there are no such requirements placed on older applicants.

"We're still dealing with kids primarily, and if at least one thinks about these issues and saves his life, it's absolutely worth the cost," said Del. Robert Ehrlich Jr., the Baltimore County Republican who co-sponsored the 1992 law creating the requirement.

The eclectic group of students sitting before Mr. Whalen have paid $35 each to attend the class offered by AAA Method Driving School. The Baltimore-based school is one of 89 companies licensed by the MVA to teach the class.

Mr. Whalen is enthusiastic and knows his subject matter. Yet, the reaction is not unlike the response to high school algebra: Some students pay close attention while others show little interest, their eyes seemingly covered with industrial-strength glazing.

He discusses the hazards of driving impaired, the effects of alcohol and drugs on one's driving skills, and the criminal penalties such miscreants face.

Such arcane concepts as blood-alcohol level are explained in simple terms. A chart given to each student tracks how a certain number of drinks can affect you, depending on your weight and how quickly you drink.

Someone who imbibes two to three drinks in an hour may register a blood alcohol level high enough to have his driver's license revoked under Maryland law, Mr. Whalen points out.

There's no test at the end. The MVA doesn't require one. Just evidence that an applicant sat in the same room with the lecturer.

"I've been surprised: A lot of people say afterward that it was a good course and they learned something," says Eugene A. D'Onofrio, the school's owner. "Who knows? It may do something. We'll have to wait and see."

The lecture strikes a chord with at least one person: Marcia Hill, a 42-year-old city resident who conquered 24 years of alcohol and drug addiction and now wants to get a driver's license so she can drive a car to work.

"The alcohol and drugs cause you to have a destructive attitude," Ms. Hill, a cashier for the Mass Transit Administration, tells her classmates. "There's nothing positive about it."

After school, Ms. Hill takes her certificate and her learner's permit to the MVA's Mondawmin office. On her first try, she passes her driving test.

"At first, I wasn't wild about going to the class because I didn't know it was going to be required, but it had some information you just wouldn't know," Ms. Hill says. "Most of us wouldn't take a class like that on our own."

Glen Burnie MVA site undergoing renovations

Intrepid Commuter has an important message for motorists who renew driver's licenses or car registrations at the agency's Glen Burnie headquarters.

The 32-year-old Ritchie Highway building is undergoing a $4.4 million renovation. Customer service hasn't been affected by the work so far, but watch out next year.

Plans call for new entrances, bathrooms, cafeteria and exterior. The first floor and the annex where driver's license tests are conducted will be remodeled.

Eventually, a new customer-service counter will be able to handle almost all transactions, so people don't have to traipse around three floors, says Adele Stephens, the MVA's director of planning and facilities development.

The renovation began June 21. Visitors will feel the effects late next year, when the annex is closed through the fall of 1995 when work is wrapped up, she says.

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