In memory of Annie, bill passes

April 06, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith and John A. Morris | C. Fraser Smith and John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writers

Anger and loss gave way to triumph yesterday for friends of Annie Davis as the Maryland General Assembly made it harder for drunken drivers to escape the full consequences of their actions.

Motorists suspected of being intoxicated will be compelled, after a crash resulting in a life-threatening injury, to take a test to determine their alcohol consumption.

After voting unanimously to enact a Senate-passed bill, the House of Delegates gave the Anne Arundel sixth-graders a standing ovation.

Their extraordinary lobbying effort began just after the Assembly session opened in January. Their friend, 12-year-old Annie Davis of Arnold, died in October of injuries suffered in a crash involving a man charged with driving while intoxicated.

The young lobbyists from Magothy River Middle School waited two hours for the climactic moment, overlooking the House floor as lawmakers debated and voted on other bills.

Finally, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. called for their bill.

Mothers leaned forward and whispered to the students almost in unison, "This is it."

The tally board lighted up with green as votes were cast.

"It's unanimous!" one mother said. Collectively, the group jumped to its feet, applauding.

Del. Phillip D. Bissett, R-Anne Arundel, who had helped put the bill in a form that could pass, stood to recognize them.

"As a result of a tragic accident last fall, these young students took on this bill as a special project," he told his colleagues. "They had all this hurt inside and did not know how else to channel it. We owe these students a debt of gratitude."

Susan A. Edkins, Annie's mother, was in tears.

For three months, she said, she had used the drive to pass the drunken driving legislation to help deal with her grief. Now, as the others celebrated, she thought only of her daughter.

"You work so hard on something, but the reality is she is not here anymore," she said.

A few minutes later, Gov. William Donald Schaefer met with the young people outside his office and promised to sign the bill.

Current state law requires the test after a fatal crash, but modern medical science created a loophole. To be valid, the test must be done within two hours. But gravely ill patients are often kept alive much longer. Annie Davis lived for more than a day, so the man whose truck hit her mother's van did not take the test.

Suspected drunken drivers increasingly refuse the test in Maryland, though that means automatic suspension of a driver's license. Police reason that the accused may seek to lessen penalties by keeping judges and juries from knowing precisely how much alcohol was consumed.

The test results are particularly important, prosecutors say, in charges of vehicular manslaughter because they can indicate the accused person's intent and state of mind.

The change enacted yesterday means many more Marylanders will be tested in the future, according to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's.

Along with the student lobbying and the testimony of Annie's mother, Mrs. Edkins, two words made the difference between passage and defeat.

Legislators had rejected efforts to tighten the testing law by making it compulsory in cases of "serious injury" -- reasoning that "serious" was not specific or objective enough.

"Life threatening" met their standard.

Some wondered if the change was not promoted by the fact that this was an election year. Still others thought the clear-eyed advocacy of young people was pivotal.

"It seems as if when you refuse to do everything a police officer tells you to do, you stand a better chance of not being punished or being punished to a lesser degree," Erin Scheide, 12, had told legislators.

The students began lobbying after the Judiciary Committee had killed a version of the bill calling for the test whenever an injured person was taken by ambulance to a hospital. Under the committee's rules, designed to help it keep pace with the thousands of bills filed each year, a measure that has been heard once and killed will not be reconsidered.

The Magothy River forces had been told their effort was futile.

Dawn Poley Schulman, parent of two students, said she remains "in awe of the democratic process." But, she said, "I feel like I have been to some foreign country where I had to learn the language and the customs -- who to speak to, who not to speak to, who not to offend."

The children met first with members of the Anne Arundel County General Assembly delegation.

They learned an identical bill was alive in the Senate, but the House would not consider it unless it was sufficiently different to seem new.

The search was on, then, for a change in wording.

Sen. Phillip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, and Mr. Bissett agreed to amend the measure to include the phrase "life threatening" injury. The bill passed the Senate committee and then the full Senate.

The House was the real obstacle.

Led by Erin and by Valerie Edwards, also 12, the students arranged to meet privately with Chairman Vallario.

Valerie said, "I have read that you think Maryland has very good laws against drunk driving. Can you tell me why you think that?"

Well, he said, they're not bad -- but not so good they couldn't stand some improvement.

Later, Mrs. Edkins spoke to him: "You have children. What would you do if it was your daughter?"

"He held my hands and said, 'Just what you're doing.' "

At about the same time, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick encountered the students in the legislative corridors.

"I've been reading about your campaign," she said. "I'm going to speak to Chairman Vallario myself."

Mr. Schaefer also wrote to the committee urging it to pass the bill.

For the eighth year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving worked for the bill, led by Evelyn D. Armiger. Mrs. Edkins said the bill's passage may be a beginning for her. "I hope I can keep my courage and come back next year" to lobby for the cause. "I know Annie will always be with me. She'll help to drive me."

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