Bills targeting DWI offenders likely to pass

Lawmakers consider tougher legislation for drunken driving

`It's finally time'

Federal government ties road funds to success of measures

February 03, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Long-sought drunken-driving legislation to toughen penalties for repeat offenders and prohibit open containers of alcohol in vehicles appears likely to win approval in the General Assembly.

But other proposals to crack down on drunken driving - including raising the penalties for drivers with particularly high blood-alcohol levels and automatically suspending licenses for those who refuse to take Breathalyzer tests - will face much tougher opposition, according to key legislators.

"I think the open-container and repeat-offender bills will pass this year," said state Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "I would like to pass a lot of bills because we have got to get drunk drivers off the roads. But I think that will be more difficult."

The open-container bill would make it illegal to have unsealed alcoholic beverages in the passenger area of a car, and the repeat-offender bill would impose tougher penalties for multiple drunken-driving convictions. Both measures are part of the House leadership package sought by Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and are backed by the governor.

For years, advocates of those two bills - as well as other drunken-driving proposals - have run into roadblocks in the Assembly, most frequently in the House Judiciary Committee.

But the federal government has been putting pressure on states, threatening to withhold highway construction money - by imposing restrictions on its use - until open-container and repeat-offender laws are approved.

For the past two years, Maryland has been required to spend 1.5 percent of federal roads money on safety programs rather than construction. That's about $3.5 million for each of the two bills this year.

Next year, if the laws aren't passed, the federal government will double the amount that must be shifted to safety to 3 percent - a total of more than $14 million, according to the State Highway Administration.

The federal threat is expected to work.

"Those bills are looking good," Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Prince George's Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee, said last week. "The federal government has given us very strong reasons to pass the repeat-offender and open-container laws."

The Assembly passed two significant drunken-driving measures last year. One law lowered 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 permits prosecutors to tell judges and juries when defendants refuse to take a Breathalyzer test.

Both of last year's laws also had highway construction funds attached to their passage, but supporters said safety should be the primary motivation, not federal dollars.

"What we really are doing is changing the culture in Maryland," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has made the fight against drunken driving a priority. "We can pass the laws, but it's also important to change people's expectations."

Of the 588 highway deaths in Maryland in 2000, 225 were alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was an increase from 179 alcohol-related deaths on Maryland's highways in 1999.

"It's finally time for us to pass these bills," said Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the House repeat-offender bill.

In August, Grosfeld, her husband and son were driving on Wisconsin Avenue when they got hit from behind by a man who had five empty beer bottles in his sport utility vehicle.

Her Toyota Camry was damaged beyond repair, but she and her family suffered only minor injuries. The other driver pleaded guilty to reckless driving and received a year of probation.

"My accident is, thank God, living proof that we need to pass an open-container law," Grosfeld said.

During this year's session, lawmakers also will consider a variety of other drunken-driving measures, including some that have been rejected in the past.

Advocates acknowledge they will be difficult to pass, particularly because the Judiciary Committee tends to approve only a couple of drunken-driving bills per year.

For example, Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat, will introduce a bill to increase the penalty for drivers with particularly high blood-alcohol levels.

Almost two-thirds of crashes with fatalities or serious injuries involve drivers with blood-alcohol levels of 1.5 percent or higher, almost twice the legal limit, Jimeno said.

In the Senate, Baker plans to introduce a bill to toughen the penalty for suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take Breathalyzer tests.

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