House OKs bill prohibiting open containers in vehicles

Foes of drunken driving get long-sought victory

March 15, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to prohibit open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles, giving a long-sought victory to groups fighting drunken driving.

The House also voted to toughen the penalty for drivers who flee the scene of accidents in which victims are seriously injured or killed. That measure was given urgency by an accident in Baltimore last year in which a drunken driver is accused of killing a 7-year-old girl and fleeing.

Both bills are expected to win Senate approval next week, and the governor has made it clear that he will sign them into law.

The open-container legislation has been resisted for years in Annapolis, largely by members of the House Judiciary Committee who have questioned whether it would have any effect on drunken driving.

This year, the House leadership made its passage a priority. If Maryland doesn't enact such a law, the state would have to divert more than $7 million in federal highway construction funds to safety programs.

The bill would make having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle a civil violation subject to a $25 fine - far less than the penalties originally in the bill. Within hours of the House vote, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved an identical bill, sending it to the full Senate.

Before approving the bill 122-9 yesterday, some delegates warned it could ensnare unsuspecting Marylanders, offering scenarios in which people might unwittingly break the law.

Del. Michael V. Dobson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he is often a "good neighbor" and picks up beer cans dumped in his neighborhood, putting them in the back seat of his car until he finds a garbage can to throw them away. If any cans have a small amount of alcohol left inside, "I could be fined," he said.

Del. Nancy M. Hubers, a Baltimore County Democrat, worried about constituents who attend bull roasts. Some bring their own alcohol and then return home - transported by designated drivers - with half-drunk bottles of alcohol in their cars, Hubers said.

But supporters of the bill said banning open containers of alcohol in vehicles is important to combat permissive attitudes toward drinking and driving.

"This bill is not a bill that has to do with people putting a cork in a bottle and coming home from a party," said Del. Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery Democrat and a sponsor of the measure. "This bill is about roaming parties that go down the road."

The hit-and-run legislation was approved unanimously by the House, making it a felony to flee a crash that causes death or serious bodily injury. It is currently a misdemeanor.

A similar measure has been approved by a Senate committee and is expected to be taken up by the full chamber early next week.

Within the next few days, the House committee is expected to consider a second significant drunken driving bill - toughening the penalty for repeat offenders. The Senate committee passed its version yesterday afternoon.

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