Drunken driving bills gain backing

Lawmakers poised to pass measures to thwart offenders

March 22, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Legislation to crack down on drunken driving cleared significant hurdles in the General Assembly yesterday, including a measure to toughen the penalties for repeat offenders winning approval of a House of Delegates committee that has previously killed the proposal.

The Senate gave final approval to a similar repeat offender bill yesterday, and it also unanimously supported legislation already passed by the House making it a felony to flee the scene of crashes in which victims are seriously injured or killed.

Today, the Senate is scheduled to vote on another drunken driving bill, prohibiting open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles. That measure is identical to one approved by the House last week.

"These are major steps forward in Maryland's fight against drunk driving," said Kurt Gregory Erickson, executive director of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program and head of the Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition.

The bill approved yesterday by the House Judiciary Committee would require at least a one-year driver's license suspension for people convicted of a second drunken-driving violation within a five-year period. For the three to 12 months after the suspension, they could drive only cars equipped with ignition interlock systems that check their sobriety.

"That is the toughest part of this bill," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who heads the committee. "This bill sends the message you won't be driving for a solid year."

Vallario's committee has long been known for being skeptical of drunken driving legislation. On the bill to prohibit open containers of alcohol, the committee significantly weakened the penalty, making it a $25 civil fine.

But between this year and the 2001 Assembly session, the committee has approved four significant drunken driving bills - lowering the blood-alcohol level for drunken driving to 0.08 percent, permitting prosecutors to tell judges and juries when defendants refuse to take a Breathalyzer test, prohibiting open containers of alcohol in vehicles and toughening the penalties for repeat offenders.

Most of those bills were in part motivated by the threat of federal sanctions. If the open container and repeat offender measures did not pass this year, Maryland transportation officials would be required to shift $7 million per bill out of construction work and into safety programs.

This year, both Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and the House leadership made the open container and repeat offender proposals two of their top legislative priorities.

"Most of the tragic consequences of drunken driving are committed by people who do it again and again," Townsend said through a spokesman last night. "This legislation is another major step in making our roads safer."

Repeat drunken drivers would face a minimum of five days in jail or 30 days of community service under the bill approved 20-1 by the House committee.

"My hope is this bill will send a very strong message to our judiciary that we take drinking and driving very seriously," said Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the bill. "For us, for this committee, this is a very strong step."

The lone committee member to vote against the measure - Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Baltimore County Republican - complained the penalties aren't harsh enough for repeat drunken drivers. "I think we should have done something a little more serious," Murphy said.

The bill now goes to the full House. It differs slightly from the version approved unanimously yesterday by the Senate, but advocates said they do not expect that to derail the legislation.

"I'll have to wait and see what they do," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee. He said if he's satisfied with the House bill, he might simply accept its version rather than try to negotiate differences in a conference committee.

In the hit-and-run legislation passed unanimously by the Senate yesterday, it would become a felony to flee a crash that causes death or serious bodily injury. It is currently a misdemeanor.

The measure was given added urgency by a Baltimore accident last year in which a driver was accused of killing a 7-year-old girl and fleeing.

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