Youngsters make their case against drunken driving

March 10, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

A General Assembly committee chairman will hear arguments for a stronger drunken driving law today in a private meeting with two of the assembly's youngest, most committed lobbyists.

Valerie Edwards and Erin Scheide, both 12, have been working for passage of a bill that would force suspected drunken drivers to take a blood-alcohol test after crashes in which fatal injuries occur -- even when death is not immediate.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has agreed to see them.

Valerie and Erin, who are students at Magothy River Middle School, learned of a loophole in the law after their friend, Annie Davis, died as the result of an accident Oct. 29. The driver was charged with vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving but no test was taken because Annie did not die immediately.

Maryland law makes the test mandatory when a fatality occurs. But in cases where death occurs hours or days later, a driver may refuse the test. For a valid measurement, the test must be done within two hours.

Efforts to broaden the circumstances under which the test would be required have been unsuccessful for at least six years.

They appeared futile again this year until Valerie, Erin and others from the Magothy River community became involved.

Senate Bill 315 passed unanimously, but it could be set aside without consideration in the House because a similar bill was killed by Mr. Vallario's committee earlier in this legislative session.

The chairman's willingness to meet with the students could be no more than a courtesy, but it may suggest that Senate amendments have improved the bill's chances.

The measure would make blood-alcohol testing mandatory whenever a "life threatening injury" has occurred in crashes involving alleged drunken drivers.

"They've agreed to listen to the new language," says Del. Phillip Bissett, an Anne Arundel Republican who sponsored the bill that failed earlier. "The changes have kept the issue alive."

He said he expects a hearing will be held at which the sponsor, Sen. Phillip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, would be the only witness.

Advocates for a stronger law are up against a sense in the committee that a general tightening of drunken driving laws has already taken place in Maryland.

If the test is refused, an individual automatically loses his or her license for 120 days on a first offense, and two years for a second.

"It's not as if there's no leverage in the law now," says Del. Kenneth H. Masters. The Baltimore County Democrat is a veteran member of the judiciary committee.

Beyond that general resistance, members of the committee say they have been unable to find wording that would close the testing loophole without creating constitutional or law enforcement problems.

"We started with 'serious injury,' but we were not satisfied it was specific enough," says Mr. Masters.

The Bissett version killed earlier would have made the test mandatory when an injured person was taken by ambulance to a hospital. That was rejected as "not an objective standard."

The formulation in Senate Bill 315 "provides a potential solution to the problem we've faced all these years," according to Mr. Masters, who is regarded as one of the committee's more exacting students of the law.

Del. John Gary says he thinks the committee will carefully consider the bill.

"They know they're sitting on a storm if they don't act on this," said the Anne Arundel Republican. "The public is absolutely outraged on this issue. We've got to send a message to people

TC that we're not going to tolerate drunk driving. And we're not sending that message when bills like this die in committee."

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