Senate OKs lower limit on blood alcohol

Drunken-driving threshold to drop to 0.08 percent

Federal funds at stake

House has approved identical bill, making passage a formality

March 23, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate overwhelmingly approved yesterday two bills aimed at cracking down on drunken driving, assuring passage of measures that advocates have been seeking for years.

One bill would lower the blood-alcohol level needed to convict someone of the most serious drunken-driving offense from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. The other would allow prosecutors to tell judges and juries whether defendants have refused to take breath-analysis tests.

"I'm very pleased that the 0.08 bill passed," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who made drunken-driving measures part of his legislative package this year. "It's just the right thing to do, and it will save lives."

Identical legislation has won approval in the House of Delegates. Each chamber must pass the other's bill, but such approval is considered a formality.

"We're excited that the General Assembly has passed this important legislation," said Wendy Hamilton, public policy liaison for Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Maryland.

The General Assembly approved the drunken-driving bills partly because of legislators' concern for safety on Maryland's roads, but also because not passing them would jeopardize millions of dollars in federal highway funds.

"It's unfortunate that it took the federal government having first a carrot ... and now a penalty approach to get this done," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the blood-alcohol legislation. "But I'm pleased that it's done."

A federal law that went into effect last year requires states to adopt the 0.08 percent standard or lose millions of dollars in federal payments for roads and other projects. Maryland would lose $54 million by 2007 if it were not to pass the tougher law by then.

Under federal law, states that move quickly to toughen their drunken-driving laws get "incentive" transportation grants of roughly $2 million. Maryland's law would become effective Sept. 30, just in time to qualify.

Advocates said they were pleased by yesterday's action but disappointed that the General Assembly didn't pass their full drunken-driving agenda.

This year, the House Judiciary Committee killed two bills that advocates consider crucial to curbing drunken driving. One would require stronger penalties for repeat offenders, and the other would prohibit passengers in vehicles from having open containers of alcohol. The bill concerning repeat drunken drivers won unanimous approval from the Senate yesterday.

If the Assembly does not pass those additional measures in the next year or two, it runs the risk of losing millions more in federal highway funding.

The chairman of the House committee promised yesterday that Maryland will not lose any money. "We need to take one step at a time and study this," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat. "I would expect that next year, we'll pass the rest of what we need to do."

Advocates said they will keep pressure on the Assembly to approve the two drunken-driving bills. "We're not looking at it as a way to secure federal money," Hamilton said. "We're looking at it as people's lives."

Supporters say the bills approved yesterday give prosecutors a better chance of convicting suspected drunken drivers. Last year, 1,541 drivers tested at 0.08 percent or 0.09 percent blood-alcohol level, according to Maryland State Police statistics. Almost 14,000 drivers tested at 0.10 percent or higher.

According to figures compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a 170-pound man would have to consume four 12-ounce beers in an hour on an empty stomach to reach 0.08 percent.

Ruben predicted that the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol measure would save 18 to 20 lives a year in Maryland.

Other legislators said lowering the blood-alcohol standard would do less to help make the roads safer than would the measures that failed this year. "The 0.08 bill won't make a real difference," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who was one of two senators to vote against the measure yesterday.

"If you really want to make roads safer, you need to toughen the penalty for repeat drunk drivers and set a higher penalty for drunk drivers who have a high blood-alcohol level."

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