More drivers refuse tests

February 18, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Motorists arrested in Maryland for suspicion of driving while intoxicated increasingly refuse to take a test that shows if they've been drinking -- and exactly how much.

Refusals of the breath or blood tests are up 12 percent over the last three years, according to Sgt. Bill Tower of the Maryland State Police.

The rate of test refusal dropped to 23.5 percent in 1990 but stands now at 26.3 percent.

A bill making the tests mandatory in accidents causing serious injury appears to be gaining support in the General Assembly.

Drivers have been sidestepping the Breathalyzer test in spite of a 4-year-old state law under which refusal means automatic loss of the driver's license for 120 days, or for a full year if it's a second offense.

Sergeant Tower and other police officials say a high percentage of those who are arrested are repeat offenders. They have direct knowledge of what is in store for them if they submit to a precise measurement of their impairment.

"Maybe they'd rather lose their license for a year than be convicted and go to jail," he said.

Those who are caught driving without a valid license have no incentive to take the test since their licenses already have been taken, he observed.

Today's offenders may represent something closer to the hard-core cases, those most resistant to change and those with the most sophistication about the law, according to Frank R. Weathersbee, state's attorney in Anne Arundel County.

"Defendants have talked to other offenders about what can happen [if you take the test], and they know the best evidence in a court is the blood alcohol count," he says.

The advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, believes many people refuse the test, even at the expense of losing their license, because "the consequences are so great in the event they are sued."

Drunken driving arrests continue to decline in Maryland, but the problem remains extremely serious.

"We're moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go," Sergeant Tower said.

Better tools needed

Arrests for drunken driving are down, he says, as a result of aggressive law enforcement tactics, including sobriety checkpoints, tougher penalties for driving drunk, and public awareness generated by MADD and national campaigns.

Still, better tools are needed, Sergeant Tower and Mr. Weathersbee say.

Under Maryland law, a person's blood alcohol level is assumed to be .10 if the test is refused. Anyone found driving with that blood alcohol level is, under Maryland law, driving while intoxicated. But drivers often test at higher levels.

One morning on his way to work on Reisterstown Road in Baltimore County, Sergeant Tower said, he arrested the driver of a 10-wheel dump truck who registered .27 -- hours after a night of drinking.

The blood alcohol test is mandatory in Maryland if a crash causes a fatality, but drivers may avoid it if a victim's death is not immediate.

With helicopters, a life-saving shock-trauma system and sophisticated medical technology, gravely injured persons often live for days before succumbing. The test must be done within two hours, under the law, to properly establish the driver's condition at the time of the crash.

Maryland legislators have rejected efforts to close this loophole for at least five years. Mr. Weathersbee said the State's Attorneys Association of Maryland became discouraged and dropped the issue as a legislative priority this year.

Last month, the House Judiciary Committee killed a bill that would have required the test in cases where a seriously injured person was taken to a hospital.

Renewed concern

But now, propelled by circumstances surrounding the death of an Anne Arundel child in October, legislators are turning back to the issue with renewed concern.

"If we come up with some new language," says Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, "I think the House Committee will take another look at it."

He believes his bill, SB-315, has more than enough votes to pass in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"The thing is developing a life of its own," he said. His office has had many calls inquiring about the measure.

When it came up for a hearing Wednesday, Mr. Jimeno took the unusual step of not testifying for his own bill.

"We had a lot of good witnesses," he said. Classmates of the child, Annie Davis, testified along with Annie's mother, Susan Edkins, and others.

"The laws have to catch up with medical science," said Mrs. Edkins, who is a nurse.

Families want to know

Mr. Weathersbee told the committee that murder cases are sometimes easier to explain to victims' families than those involving alleged drunken driving.

Families almost always want to know the blood alcohol content of the accused driver.

"It's awfully difficult for us to explain that we, the state of Maryland, cannot say what it is, that we don't have [the test results]."

When he began as a prosecutor in 1969, he said, no tests were available.

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