Getting drunks off the highway

April 21, 1994

Maryland legislators who are patting themselves on the back for plugging a small, but important, loophole in the drunk-driving laws should look first toward our neighboring state to the south. Virginia is already two giant steps ahead of Maryland in forcing drunk drivers off the highways.

The Maryland legislature was shamed by some barely adolescent school children into requiring that drivers who cause serious injuries take an immediate blood alcohol test. Now drivers must take the test only if someone is killed immediately. If a victim dies later, when alcohol levels have subsided, the driver evades blame for any consumption.

While the House of Delegates beamed and applauded the teen-age lobbyists for making them do what they should have done anyway, Virginia was tightening its drunk-driving laws even further. It lowered the blood alcohol level that determines intoxication from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. That requires four drinks in an hour for the average sized man. Maryland sticks to the 0.10 level, which typically permits a fifth drink within 60 minutes. And Virginia will force drivers whose roadside breath tests register a 0.08 alcohol level, or who refuse to take the test, to surrender their licenses for a week at the accident scene. They can get them back, but only by going to court.

Why is the Virginia legislature so much harder on drunk drivers than Maryland's? After all, it is not notably a citadel of legislative liberalism.

One answer can be found on the roster of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis this past session. It is loaded with trial lawyers, many of whom make their livings the other nine months of the year defending drunk drivers. The committee has long pandered to the lawyers' self-interest by scuttling attempts to put more teeth in drunk-driving laws. Before students from Magothy River Middle School descended on them last session, the committee killed a bill that would have required the blood tests if a highway victim were sent to a hospital. Later it rejected a bill to make the 0.10 alcohol level sufficient proof of drunkenness, without the driver having to display symptoms like slurring.

In one way, drunk driving is becoming less of a threat. The number of intoxicated motorists seems to be declining. But those who remain are drunker than ever and more likely to be repeat offenders. It's no longer a matter of having one too many at a party. Now it is the habitual boozer who is morally, if not legally, no different from a murderer. Such drivers increasingly refuse to take breath tests, which means they lose their licenses temporarily but often avoid the more serious penalties they deserve. Voters this fall are entitled to ask legislative candidates whose interests they would represent when voting on drunk-driving bills.

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