Drunken driving is down in Md.

March 30, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SOURCE: Alcohol and Drug Abuse AdministrationSun Staff Writer

Fewer Marylanders drive drunk these days, but those who do are more intoxicated than before, undeterred by repeated arrest and conviction.

Ten years ago, when drunken drivers weren't necessarily social pariahs, only 6 percent of Marylanders caught driving under the influence had more than one conviction, according to the state health department.

Last year, more than 38 percent were repeat offenders -- some with up to six convictions.

James Brian Distler was one of them. He was driving on Rolling Road in Baltimore County at 7 a.m. on March 24, 1993, when his car crossed the median and smashed head-on into another car.

Mr. Distler, 30, died in the crash. So did Chante Wilson, a 25-year-old Columbia woman in the other car with her boyfriend and their daughter, both of whom were injured.

Mr. Distler's blood alcohol level was 0.15 percent, well above Maryland's 0.10 percent threshold for intoxication. And it wasn't the first time he had been involved in such an incident. He had lost his driver's license in 1992 after a 1991 drunken driving conviction. And he had been arrested again on suspicion of drunken driving six months before the fatal accident.

That case is not unique.

The Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration says 119 of the drunken drivers convicted last year had at least five prior convictions. Ten years ago, before campaigns against drunken driving had put an onus on intoxication behind the wheel, 22 drivers convicted in Maryland had records that bad.

Such drivers remain untouched by the court's sanctions or by the widely heralded and largely successful efforts to keep drivers out of their cars after they have been drinking.

"The message seems to have gotten out to the social drinkers," says Donna Becker, an official of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in Northern Maryland. "It's the drinkers who can't stop or who don't think they have a problem."

No nationwide figures on repeat offenders are available, but Jim Hedlund, an official of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says Maryland's experience is consistent with reports from other states that suggest about 30 percent of those arrested are repeat offenders.

By almost any measurement, he says, motorists are less likely to be involved in crashes caused by drunken driving than they were 10 years ago. The number of drunken driving arrests per million miles driven has declined sharply since the early 1980s.

"We're ending up with the tougher nuts," he says.

In Maryland, there were 32,000 drunken driving arrests in 1993, down from 44,000 in 1988. Data on 17,762 drivers convicted last year show that:

* 4,395 were in court a second time, five times as many as in 1984.

* 1,575 were arrested a third time, up from 226 in 1984.

* 571 were four-time offenders, up from 54 in 1984.

* Five-time offenders numbered 193, up from 13 a decade earlier.

"We don't have a problem identifying or arresting the drunk driver," says Michael S. Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse. "We do that six or seven times. Where we're lax is letting people go without the proper treatment. Taking licenses away doesn't do anything for the chronic alcoholic."

As further evidence, he pointed to the increasingly high blood alcohol content of drivers who are tested.

In Baltimore County last year, 22.5 percent of those arrested had blood alcohol levels ranging from 0.16 percent to 0.20 percent, double the percentage testing that high in 1990. Twelve percent of those tested last year in Baltimore County registered 0.20 percent or higher, at least twice the legal limit. Statewide figures show a similar trend.

Today in Annapolis, the House Judiciary Committee will consider a bill that seeks to tighten the state's law on blood alcohol testing, which allows a driver to refuse a test unless there is an immediate fatality.

The bill would require the test in cases of "life-threatening injury." This would make it possible to test drivers in cases in which injuries later prove fatal. MADD and other groups say the data are important for prosecution of drunken driving.

Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the Maryland District Court, says the judiciary is greatly concerned about drunken driving.

"We're trying to make that difficult judgment: What's the best thing for me to do to protect the public out there? Many times, guys who get involved in these crashes are people whose license has been revoked, and they're driving anyway," he says.

Judge Sweeney, who holds seminars on drunken driving for judges at least once a year, says he has never bought a frequent argument raised in defense of drunken drivers.

"An upstanding guy who makes a mistake and kills somebody while he's drunk, the idea that he's not a criminal just never sat well with me," he says.

Judge Sweeney says he supports facilities where offenders are sentenced to a month of treatment and then closely monitored for a year.

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