Far Less Tolerance For Drinking Drivers

April 23, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

When he went to Capital Centre for hockey games in the 1970s, beer drinkers put on a menacing side show.

"You'd have a lot of fights inside the arena," says Jim Fell, science adviser for drinking-driver programs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. "And when you were in the parking lot afterward, the guy pulling out in the car next to you might have had 10 beers. No one seemed to care."

Over the past 10 years, a far less tolerant society has emerged with the help of Mr. Fell, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a widening circle of Americans outraged by drinking drivers.

The best current evidence of the change in Maryland is the "illegal per se" law passed during the recently concluded General Assembly session. As of Oct. 1, anyone driving with a blood alcohol content of .10 or higher will be guilty per se of driving drunk: In this case, per se means the test results alone establish guilt.

A coalition of organizations and private citizens succeeded in pulling the Assembly another step away from its flat-Earth approach to a problem that leaves 17,000 or so Americans dead and many more seriously injured each year.

While it seems obvious that drinking and driving is suicidal or murderous, every inch of progress toward curbing it has required years of struggle.

Government agencies such as Mr. Fell's tried for years to use statistics to generate public pressure and legislative or judicial reforms. Nothing worked before the founding of MADD, a movement of impassioned and tenacious survivors. MADD's message is being heard throughout U.S. society -- including at USAir Arena (formerly Capital Centre) in Landover, Prince George's County.

Under the direction of Jerry Sachs, president of USAir Arena, beer sales end after the second period of hockey games. The price of beer was raised. No more than two containers can be purchased by any single customer at any time. And the management periodically announces free rides home for fans who feel they've had too many.

Mr. Sachs did not stop there. He joined with MADD and others to lobby the Assembly for passage of per se. The change will be in place at the beginning of next year's hockey season. If a fan leaves the parking lot drunk and later "blows" .10 on the machine that measures blood alcohol content, he will have much more difficulty avoiding some sort of penalty. Juries are much more likely to convict with "bright line" proof that the accused was impaired.

Currently, police officers must back the Breathalyzer finding with subjective observations about the defendant's appearance. Probable cause must still be shown with a per se law and the accuracy of the testing device may be challenged, but a lawyer's ability to create "reasonable doubt" will be sharply limited.

In Annapolis this year, advocates observed once again that per se has been upheld by the courts and that .10 is not overly restrictive. Mr. Fell and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are urging Maryland and other states to adopt a standard of .08 -- and many have.

Scientists say noticeable impairment of driving ability begins at .05 -- half the current standard. At .10, tests show, a driver is 12 times more likely to have an accident than when he is sober. We are not talking wine with dinner: It takes five drinks in an hour for a 160-pound man to reach the .10 level; less for a 120-pound woman.

Many states have had the per se statute for years. Minnesota passed its law in 1971. Its legislature has revisited drunken driving each year since then, tightening and refining its system of sanctions. Alcohol-related fatalities in Minnesota peaked in 1968 at more than 1,000. The toll is still 500 or so a year, but the per capita death rate has often been the nation's lowest. Had the toll continued unabated, another 13,000 Minnesotans would

have died.

Maryland legislators turned away from lives-saved data for years, arguing per se amounted to "trial by Breathalyzer."

So discouraged were advocates of the law after so many years of futility that MADD in Maryland did not make per se a legislative priority this year. It was initially advanced this time by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Passage owes much to the constantly widening sphere of anti-drunken-driving forces, a growth symbolized by the addition of a businessman like Jerry Sachs.

The circle of petitioners also included:

* Del. Donald E. Murphy, a freshman Republican from Catonsville, was converted after drinking four beers in an hour, having himself driven to the lockup and recording .06 on the Breathalyzer.

He'd opposed per se in committee, worrying about the accuracy of the testing device. But he decided to do his own test. If he was still "legal" the way he felt at .06, he said, the .10 standard seemed all too reasonable.

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