Maryland Debates Tougher Laws to Combat Drunk Driving

March 13, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

In the crash that killed 12-year-old Annie Davis last October, her mother's van was rammed by a Ford pickup driven by a man who police say was intoxicated.

The truck, on the other hand, was in good shape. The tires had plenty of tread. The braking system was well-maintained: master cylinder filled almost to its maximum, plenty of lining left in the brake shoes.

Authorities know these depths and thicknesses down to 32nds of an inch as the result of careful examination by investigators.

What they don't know is how much alcohol was in the bloodstream of the allegedly drunk driver. They had the technology to find out, but like many other states, Maryland doesn't always use it and, contrary to popular belief, the law does not always require it.

Police were not allowed to get a blood alcohol measurement because the driver, having been read his rights, refused the test. would have been compelled to take it only if Annie had died instantly.

It is ironic that Maryland's vaunted shock trauma system can save a drunk driver from the revelations that come with blood testing. To be valid as evidence of a driver's condition at the time of a crash, the test must be done within two hours.

Meanwhile, gravely injured crash victims are moved swiftly by helicopter to emergency rooms where they get some of the best medical care in the world. Many are saved. Others live a few hours or a day as Annie Davis did.

Legislators and anti-drunk driving groups have tried for years to make the test applicable even when death is not instantaneous, trying language that spoke to "serious" injury, or to injury requiring transportation to a hospital by ambulance. So far, nothing has seemed precise enough.

Meanwhile, only three of 100 Maryland drivers involved in fatal accidents are being tested, according to data collected under the Fatal Accident Reporting System of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The test evidence is needed by prosecutors but also by traffic safety researchers, according to Robert G. Kirk, executive director of the American Council on Alcoholism. More stringent testing laws provide important highway safety data needed to assess the magnitude of the drinking and driving problem -- and to get problem drinkers into treatment.

Critics say a tighter law is blocked by legislative committees heavily laden with lawyers who fear they will be unable to provide a defense if the evidence of guilt is measured in stark numbers. The lawyers say tougher laws would actually help them, bringing more clients -- and they insist they are searching for a way to get the job done without increasing the state's power over the individual.

The real impediment, though, may be the success of recent efforts by organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Thought grudgingly in some cases, states across the country have passed tougher laws. Drunk driving is less socially acceptable. Even the language is changing: drunk driving is not an accident, it's a crime, MADD insists.

The public may feel the problem has been taken care of, that further change is less urgent.

The friends of victims suggest otherwise.

In testimony and in a series of meetings with legislators, friends of Annie Davis and her mother, Susan Edkins, have gained the attention of legislators on the testing issue. In a small but crucial area, they made a bit of history last week.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, met with them and said his committee would consider a new version of the testing bill killed earlier this year in his committee. By tradition, Judiciary does not deal with the same subject twice in a single session.

One of the students, Valerie Edwards, asked Chairman Vallario during a meeting in his office if he thought Maryland's laws against drunk driving are adequate. He said he thought the state had done well, but acknowledged room for improvement.

The testing proposal could fall into the improvement category, he said.

Mr. Vallario's assessment is supported by MADD which gives Maryland relatively good marks and then points out areas that need improvement.

In statistics and records keeping, it gets an A; in administrative and criminal sanctions, an A; and in campaigns to focus on drinking among young people, an A.

In the area of legislation, though, the score was C+. MADD urges reduction of the driving-while-intoxicated blood alcohol standard from .10 to .08; and more frequent use of blood alcohol testing.

For those who do submit to the test in Maryland, MADD reported, the average blood alcohol level was .17 -- approaching twice the allowable limit. That figure may mean that those who persist in driving drunk represent real problem drinkers. Increasingly, according to the State Police, drivers suspected of driving drunk refuse the test, perhaps knowing the consequences in court will be greater. In charges of vehicular manslaughter, for example, the alcohol level can be used to show intent.

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