House committee kills DWI legislation Bill called for 0.08 blood alcohol limit

March 20, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

A House of Delegates committee voted last night to kill legislation aimed at cracking down on motorists who drink, rejecting a bill that would have lowered the blood-alcohol level at which a driver can be considered drunk in Maryland.

The 11-10 vote by the House Judiciary Committee apparently dooms the measure for this year. The bill would have lowered the blood-alcohol level required for a conviction of driving while intoxicated from .10 to 0.08.

The committee voted against the bill despite hearing testimony from a broad coalition of law enforcement, medical and safety advocates that Maryland could save lives by passing the legislation.

The bill, sponsored by Montgomery County Democrat Gilbert J. Genn, also had the support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, state police and the insurance industry.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who testified in favor of the legislation, said she was "really disappointed."

"There are very few bills that can definitively save lives, and this is one of them," Townsend said. "The lower you make the blood-alcohol content, the safer the roads become. And there was lots of testimony from emergency room physicians, police and victims that this would make a difference. I'm surprised."

But Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted against the bill, said the 11 opponents were "representatives of courage, not of grandstanding."

The vote means that -- for now at least -- Maryland will not join 15 other states, including Virginia, that have adopted the 0.08 limit.

But Maryland could soon find itself under increased pressure to lower its limit. In October, the Clinton administration endorsed an effort in Congress to penalize states that don't lower their drunken-driving threshold to 0.08.

During hearings on the bill, delegates heard testimony that to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.08, a 170-pound man would have to drink four beers in an hour on an empty stomach.

Proponents cited a study that 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.

But delegates who opposed the bill argued that Maryland law already makes it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol level as low as 0.07 -- the level at which a motorist can be charged with the lesser offense of driving under the influence of alcohol.

"We already have some of the strongest laws you can imagine," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague, a Baltimore Democrat who voted against the bill.

Other opponents said that before passing such a bill, the General Assembly should wait to see how well a 1995 law is working. The law makes a .10 blood alcohol reading automatic proof of intoxication.

But Del. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who supported the bill, said she took part in an experiment sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving in which she drank enough alcohol to reach the 0.07 level under which a Maryland driver is considered impaired.

"I was definitely intoxicated," she said, contending that such a law would have made people more aware of how many drinks they had.

After the vote, advocates who testified for the bill said it was only a matter of time before the General Assembly approves the measure.

"It's obvious that people in the United States are fed up," said Jan Withers, an Upper Marlboro woman whose 15-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver.

She said the 0.08 standard is "obviously a trend happening across the country. I hope it's an eventuality here."

A similar bill received a hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee but has not come up for a vote. With the House on record against the measure, it is uncertain whether the Senate panel will take further action.

Opponents of the bill included the Restaurant Association of Maryland, a powerful trade association that contended proponents wouldn't be happy until alcohol is banned.

Under Maryland law, the penalty for a first conviction for driving while intoxicated is a $1,000 fine, a year in jail or both. A first conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol can 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.

Besides Montague and Dembrow, delegates who voted against the bill were Rushern L. Baker III, D-Prince George's; Phillip D. Bissett, R-Anne Arundel; Emmett C. Burns Jr., D-Baltimore County; Michael G. Comeau, D-Harford; Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore; Thomas E. Hutchins, R-Charles; Donald E. Murphy, R-Baltimore County; Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert; and David M. Valderrama, D-Prince George's.

In addition to Genn and Jacobs, the legislation was supported by Michael W. Burns, R-Anne Arundel; Mary A. Conroy, D-Prince George's; Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery; Pauline H. Menes, Prince George's; Timothy D. Murphy, D-Baltimore; Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel; Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery; and Frank S. Turner, D-Howard.

Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, did not vote but is on record opposing federal legislation that would prod the states to adopt the .08 limit.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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