House approves bill to lower Md.'s legal blood-alcohol level

Federal highway funds to state are at stake

March 08, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates approved a bill yesterday lowering to 0.08 percent the blood-alcohol level needed to convict someone of the most serious drunken-driving offense, a move that takes Maryland a step closer to receiving millions of dollars in federal highway funds.

A federal law that went into effect last year requires states to adopt the 0.08 percent standard by 2003 or lose money for roads and other projects. Maryland will lose $54 million by 2007 if it does not pass the tougher law.

The bill will go to the Senate, which is expected to approve it.

The House vote of 116 to 17 yesterday indicated the overwhelming support for the legislation, which the Judiciary Committee had routinely killed in the past. Though arguments for and against the bill have not changed, legislators have made it clear that they realize money is at stake.

The federal law also provides "incentive" transportation grants of roughly $2 million a year for states that move quickly to toughen their drunken-driving statutes. The General Assembly is on track to make the Maryland law effective Sept. 30, in time to qualify for such a payment.

The possible loss of federal money was never mentioned during yesterday's debate. Instead, legislators asked about current enforcement policies for drunken driving and the amount of alcohol needed to impair someone's driving ability.

Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat, criticized the bill. He said lowering the blood-level requirement from 0.10 percent to 0.08 would not affect the ability of police to arrest the heaviest drinkers, who he said are responsible for many of the accidents.

"I have serious concerns about this because it seems as though we're casting a broader net as opposed to dealing with the problem," Davis said. "If we're trying to get drunk drivers off the road, then what we need to do is prosecute the people who are captured under the current law."

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Judiciary Committee chairman, defended the bill.

"This bill sends a message to the public in general not to drink and drive," said Vallario, a Prince George's Democrat. "What this bill says is, `Do not get in an automobile when you have consumed any liquor.'"

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

10 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m. House Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, hearing on transportation revenues and the governor's mass transit initiative, Joint Hearing Room, Legislative Services Building.

1 p.m. Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, hearing on legislation about sexual offenders, 2 East, Miller Senate Office Building.

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