Drunk Drivers and the Law

January 15, 1995

Every year drunk drivers maim and kill on Maryland highways. Still, too many state officials treat driving under the influence of alcohol as a minor offense, as serious as a first-time shoplifting. Once again a study discloses that motorists who are habitually drunk behind the wheel go for years, often for decades, before they are caught. And they can be caught a half-dozen or more times before they get any serious punishment.

Experts believe these cases are not rare; they estimate that some offenders break the law hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before they are caught. And when they are finally caught they are frequently let off with a slap on the wrist.

Responsibility for this lax attitude toward drunk driving rests with both the courts and the legislature. Last year the legislature had to be embarrassed by some indignant school children into plugging a small but important loophole in mandatory blood tests of drivers in fatal incidents. Other attempts to strengthen drunk driving laws were killed, as they are regularly in the legislature.

When chronic drunk drivers finally get to court, often they walk away with probation before judgment, which wipes out a finding of guilt if the offender commits no further violations for a stipulated period and, usually, attends a counseling program. In recent years, between a quarter and a third of all drunk driving cases were resolved by PBJ, as it is known. Some judges believe it's the most effective tool in dealing with drunk drivers, but other judges strongly disagree. The use of PBJ in district courts around the state ranges from hardly ever in one county to more than 50 percent in others. It's not a matter of geography -- neighboring courts vary widely in their use of PBJ.

There is hope for a more enlightened approach from the new legislature. Typically, bills to strengthen drunk driving laws have died in the House Judiciary Committee, the graveyard for bills that lawyers don't like. But the last election and new assignments drastically reduced lawyer-legislators on the panel from 13 to seven.

Although the number of alcohol-related highway deaths may have receded last year, it's still too high. Neighboring Virginia, not usually a leader in tough regulations, has much stronger drunk driving laws than Maryland. The new legislature needs to crack down on drunk drivers, including limiting the arbitrary and capricious use of PBJ by judges.

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