Assembly bans open containers

Unsealed alcohol in vehicles would bring $25 fine

Governor vows to sign bill

Federal funds for highways linked to its approval

April 02, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Motorists would be banned from carrying open beer cans, wine bottles or other unsealed containers of alcohol in cars under legislation given final General Assembly approval yesterday and sent to the governor for his promised signature.

Anti-drunken-driving advocates who pushed for an open-container law applauded the 46-0 Senate vote, even as they acknowledged that the version of the bill passed was weaker than they would have liked.

The legislation would create a civil penalty for carrying an open alcoholic beverage in the driver or passenger area of a vehicle, punishable by a $25 fine. Maryland stood to lose federal highway funding if lawmakers did not approve an acceptable form of the law this year.

An initial version of the bill carried criminal misdemeanor penalties, with a maximum $500 fine. Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, said she disliked many of the amendments by the House of Delegates but accepted the changes because "the issue is so important and we worked on it for so long."

"A judge might have come down to $25, but that should not be the ceiling," Forehand said. "A lot of people don't understand the gravity of it, but when you have a rolling keg party going down the highway, you have a lot of potential problems."

Maryland would join 34 states and the District of Columbia that have approved open-container laws, bringing it into compliance with a federal regulation that links the passage of such laws to the receipt of highway funds. Next year, the state could have seen $7.5 million in highway money diverted for other projects if the bill had not been passed.

The General Assembly is also considering a bill that would stiffen penalties for repeat drunken-driving offenders, but differences remain between the Senate and House versions. That bill is linked to another $7.5 million in federal funds, and supporters are optimistic about its chances.

"These are just a couple of more tools the state will have to combat drunk driving," said Lon Anderson, director of public affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "We should have zero tolerance for repeat offenders, yet it takes us years to get this legislation passed. Legislation is just one small part of what can be done to fight drunk driving."

Lawmakers would have to resolve differences between competing versions of the repeat-offender bill, already law in 27 states and the District of Columbia. House members want violators to receive either jail time or community service as punishment, but senators say offenders should receive both jail time and service hours.

"There's still some room for negotiation," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat and sponsor of the bill. "We're willing to sit down and talk."

Several drunken-driving measures have been a leading priority of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has testified in legislative committees, urging their passage.

"The open container legislation is an important step in making our roads safer," said Michael A. Sarbanes, a senior policy adviser to Townsend. "It says for the first time in Maryland that it's not all right to drive with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the bottle."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he will sign the bill into law.

An additional drunken-driving measure backed by Townsend and others that would increase penalties for drivers who refuse to take blood-alcohol tests and for drivers who have high amounts of alcohol in their bodies, failed this year.

Advocates say Maryland needs tougher laws because alcohol-related accidents and deaths are rising. There were 225 alcohol- or drug-related vehicle fatalities in 2000, up from 180 in 1999. Accidents rose from 8,540 to 8,850, according to state police.

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