Ban on drinking in cars is OK'd

House panel approves proposal

more debate is expected

March 08, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Submitting under the threat of lost federal highway dollars, a House of Delegates committee approved a bill last night that would prohibit open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the open-container ban by a 20-1 vote, after lowering its fines and amending its provisions to make violations a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor. The legislation had failed in the committee for four consecutive years.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has made the measure one of his top priorities of the legislative session, as has Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"Making it a leadership bill was extremely significant," said Del. Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the primary sponsor. "That brought with it the whole leadership team."

Several lawmakers said they were holding their noses as they voted for the bill. If not for the potential loss of federal money, said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, also a Montgomery Democrat, he would not seek to limit the rights of those who open a beer in the back of a friend's car after getting off from work.

"I don't believe this stops drunk driving in any way, shape or form," said Del. William H. Cole IV, a Baltimore Democrat. "But we had no choice."

Townsend said through a spokesman that the vote was "an important step."

"Clearly there are going to be some disputes about the language of this bill, but the bottom-line message is clear," she said. "For the first time, the state of Maryland has said you can't have an open container of alcohol in your car, and drive with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the bottle."

The full House will consider the legislation this month, and more debate is expected.

Federal officials have been encouraging states to pass tougher drunken-driving laws, and have been diverting highway funds if they don't comply. For the past two years, Maryland was required to detour about $7 million that could have gone to roads into safety-related projects.

But the supply of such projects is growing short, and this year, the federal government is doubling the amount of money withheld. Legislative leaders have predicted that the pressure would be enough to change the minds of reluctant lawmakers.

Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Catonsville Republican who cast the lone opposition vote, said caving to financial concerns was unethical.

"If you have sex for money, you're a whore," Murphy said. "If you take campaign money for a vote, you're a whore. And if you pass this, you are no less a whore."

Last night, committee members approved amendments to make having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle a civil penalty rather than a criminal violation, punishable by a $25 fine. The proposed penalty had been $500. Buses, taxicabs and limousines would be exempt.

Petzold said supporters checked with federal highway officials, and believe the changes meet the federal requirements. Nonetheless, she conceded that the measure was weakened.

"They take a lot of the deterrent away because the fine is $25," Petzold said. "I would have preferred a higher fine, but I lost. But I got the bill."

A Senate version was heard by a committee this week, and a vote is pending.

Federal officials also want Maryland to pass a law that toughens penalties for repeat drunken-driving offenders, and the House Judiciary Committee has yet to vote.

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