Stricter limit for DWI gets fresh impetus New push to lower blood-alcohol standard gains supporters

Restaurant group objects

Decline from 0.10% to 0.08% would parallel federal proposal

December 25, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Buoyed by support on the federal level, a group of safety activists plans to push this winter for state legislation that would lower the limit at which a driver in Maryland is considered drunk.

The effort has advantages that were lacking last winter, when a similar measure failed.

In October, the Clinton administration endorsed a federal proposal to penalize states that don't lower their drunken-driving threshold to a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent, the limit being sought in Maryland.

The state effort also has the support of the Maryland State Police.

A coalition of automobile, insurance, safety and emergency medicine groups will urge state lawmakers to lower the threshold for driving while intoxicated from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, said Susan Edkins, public policy liaison for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Maryland.

The group also wants to reduce the standard for driving under the influence of alcohol from 0.07 percent to 0.06 percent.

Supporters of a 0.08 percent limit say research shows that drivers are impaired at that level. They also contend that a stricter law would discourage drunken driving and reduce alcohol-related crashes.

Fifteen states, including Virginia, have a 0.08 percent limit. A study found that states with the lower limit had a 16 percent decline in fatal crashes involving drunken drivers when compared with nearby states with higher thresholds, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

State Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a lead sponsor of the Maryland measure, said a 170-pound man would have to drink four beers in an hour on an empty stomach to reach a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level.

"No one should be able to get into a car after drinking that much and drive," said Ruben, a Democrat. "The goal is not to stop people from drinking, but don't get behind the wheel and have a weapon that can kill."

In her home county, Montgomery, several residents have been killed in well-publicized drunken-driving crashes in the Washington area, including a 16-year-old Kensington girl killed by a diplomat.

Opponents of the bill include the Restaurant Association of Maryland. The 2,400-member group contends that the other side won't be happy until it bans alcohol.

"What the other side wants is to stop people from drinking altogether," said restaurant association lobbyist Thomas B. Stone Jr. "We're talking about Prohibition here. That's where they eventually want to go."

Stone said most people convicted of drunken driving have blood alcohol levels that are almost twice the 0.08 percent threshold.

He said the bill "doesn't get to the problem" and that restaurants have supported tougher enforcement and penalties in the past.

Arrests increase

Drunken-driving arrests are up this year in Maryland, and alcohol-related fatalities have remained steady, police say.

State and local police issued 33,361 citations for drunken driving and driving under the influence in the year that ended July 1, 4.5 percent more than in the previous year.

State police have stepped up enforcement during the holidays, when many alcohol-related crashes occur. "This effort will continue through New Year's Eve," said Superintendent David B. Mitchell.

Last weekend, state and local police arrested 135 people on drunken-driving charges and issued more than 2,000 tickets for traffic offenses in an eight-hour sweep.

Mitchell said he supports lowering the drunken-driving threshold to 0.08 percent but that he had not seen the bill.

The state Department of Transportation plans to endorse the lower limit during the General Assembly session that begins next month, a spokeswoman said.

Among the supporters will be a group of high school students who were instrumental in the passage of another drunken-driving bill four years ago. Friends of Annie Davis, a 12-year-old Arnold girl who was killed in 1993 by a driver who had been drinking, expect to be in Annapolis this winter, said Annie's mother, Susan Edkins of MADD.

The students were formidable lobbyists in 1994, when, with their support, a bill was passed requiring suspected drunken drivers to take a blood-alcohol test after a crash resulting in a life-threatening injury.

The driver, a 61-year-old Annapolis man, refused to take such a test after ramming Edkins' minivan outside Annapolis in 1993.

Possible obstacle

The biggest hurdle to the bill to lower the limit to 0.08 percent could be in the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., recently expressed doubts about the proposal in a letter to a U.S. senator. Vallario was opposing a federal bill that would withhold some federal highway funds from states that refused to adopt a 0.08 percent limit.

Lowering the limit "will do little to curtail tragedies resulting from drunk driving," Vallario wrote.

In an interview this week, the Prince George's County Democrat said he would listen to testimony before making up his mind about the state bill.

Vallario pointed out that driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent is already illegal in Maryland. The driver would be subject to a conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The penalty for a first DWI conviction is a $1,000 fine, a year in jail or both. A first DUI conviction could result in a $500 fine, up to a year in jail or both. Either charge also can lead to the suspension of the offender's Maryland driver's license.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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