Death and alcohol

December 02, 2005

Good defense lawyers know the loopholes in Maryland's drunken-driving laws. For instance, they know that people caught driving while intoxicated, particularly repeat offenders, are better off refusing a roadside breathalyzer test. By doing so, they're less likely to be convicted, and if they are, it may be for a lesser crime. And if a client is ever hospitalized after a serious accident, a veteran lawyer knows to demand the medical credentials of whoever draws his blood (most likely a nurse) to test for alcohol. That requires a court appearance, and there's a good chance the nurse won't show up and the test will be thrown out.

Last month, the National Safety Council released a report that found Maryland's drunken-driving problem is getting worse. In Maryland, 45 percent of highway fatalities involve alcohol, compared with the 39 percent national average. That ranks Maryland ninth-worst in the nation. And the percentage has been steadily rising in recent years.

To what extent have legal loopholes contributed to this problem? A connection seems likely. But there are other possible factors: Are drunken-driving laws adequately enforced? Has the public been properly educated about the dangers of driving while intoxicated?

The safety council's report should be a wake-up call to state officials who demonstrate indifference to Maryland's drunken-driving problem. Last year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. introduced legislation to automatically suspend the driver's license of anyone under age 21 who drinks and drives. The bill failed, but the governor has indicated he'll offer it again. That's great for addressing youngsters, but what about chronic adult offenders? They're the ones causing most of the deaths on Maryland's roads.

What Mr. Ehrlich - and the General Assembly's leadership - ought to be doing is scrambling to find some answers to this growing threat to public safety. It's troubling that neither they nor the public in general seem particularly alarmed by the trend. Last year, Maryland reported 209 deaths from drunken-driving accidents, a 12 percent increase from the year before. Nationally, the number of alcohol-involved traffic deaths actually declined in 2004.

Some remedies are fairly obvious - such as closing the legal loopholes. After all, one of the best ways to reduce drunken-driving deaths is to keep repeat offenders off the road. One way to do that might be to create tougher penalties for drivers whose blood alcohol content tests at nearly twice the legal limit or 0.15 and above.

Even better would be a comprehensive solution that not only beefs up the law but addresses law enforcement and public education as well. But don't hold your breathalyzer. There's little sign of significant interest in the issue in Annapolis - despite these troubling trends.

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