New limit for DWI

Law that lowers blood alcohol level begins Sunday

0.08% is new standard

Police to step up enforcement

state to launch campaign

September 26, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland law enforcement officials are vowing to step up their war against drunken driving this weekend as a tougher new state law goes into effect.

The law -- which lowers the blood alcohol level needed to convict someone of the most serious drunken-driving offense from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent -- was passed in the spring by the General Assembly after years of lobbying by highway safety advocates.

"I wasn't sure we would see .08 passed in my lifetime," said Brenda Barnes, executive director of the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It's something we've been working on for a long time."

At a news conference in Annapolis yesterday, state officials announced they will launch a campaign this week to publicize the law, which goes into effect Sunday.

The campaign's slogan, "Don't, It's Just Not Worth It," will be featured in highway signs, radio advertising, posters in gas stations and convenience stores, and on drink coasters in restaurants and bars.

State police officials say they'll operate at least two sobriety checkpoints this weekend, and $2 million in extra federal funding that Maryland received for passing the law will go to state and local law enforcement agencies. "This is something we're really taking seriously, and we'll have an even more enhanced effort at enforcement," said Lt. Bud Frank of the state police.

The extra money will allow state police to have more patrols along roads known to have many alcohol-related accidents. At sobriety checkpoints, extra troopers will watch for drunken drivers seeking to slip by along side streets.

State officials say they hope the law will reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths and injuries by 10 percent to 15 percent.

Last year, 195 people died and 8,806 were injured in alcohol-related crashes in Maryland. State police say 1,541 drivers were found to have 0.08 percent or 0.09 percent blood alcohol levels last year, and about 14,000 tested at 0.10 percent or higher.

"We're saying, `Don't drink and drive because it's not worth it,'" Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday. Townsend, who led the administration's lobbying effort to pass the law, added, "It's not worth it because of the penalty, and it's not worth it because of the deaths."

Advocates estimate that a 170-pound man would have to drink four 12-ounce beers in an hour on an empty stomach to reach 0.08 percent.

But highway safety isn't the only expected benefit from the law. States with blood-alcohol limits higher than 0.08 percent risk losing millions in federal highway construction funds. Maryland is the 25th state to pass a 0.08 law.

A second drunken-driving law that takes effect this weekend permits prosecutors to tell judges and juries when defendants refuse to take a Breathalyzer test.

Next year, the Assembly will take up two other drunken-driving measures that have failed in the past -- tougher penalties for repeat offenders and prohibiting passengers in vehicles from having open containers of alcohol.

"I think they're a logical next step to tightening the screws on trying to eliminate drunken driving," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. Taylor said he will push to include the two proposals in the House leadership's legislative package for next year.

With those two laws not in place, Maryland is being forced by Congress to divert 3 percent of its federal highway construction funds into highway safety -- about $8 million. If the two laws aren't in effect by Oct. 1 of next year, the amount being diverted each year will double.

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