Failing the breath test

December 01, 2006

About 17,000 people die each year in alcohol-related accidents in the U.S. One of the most recent of these losses is particularly tragic. Marine Cpl. Brian Mathews was on leave from Iraq, where he had spent the previous eight months surviving a war, only to be killed by a drunk driver in Howard County on Thanksgiving. He was just 21 years old. His 24-year-old date also died in the crash. The driver now charged with killing them recorded a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit.

People should be outraged by this incident; many probably are, but recent evidence suggests that public disdain for drunk driving is not what it once was. In the 1980s and 90s, there was considerable anger over the carnage on the nation's roads. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving successfully pushed for reforms, and the fatalities dropped. But in the last decade or so, those efforts have lost steam and the number of alcohol-related deaths is no longer falling.

There are a number of measures states could be taking to get back on track. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended laws to address "hard core" offenders. One of those is to enhance penalties for suspected drunk drivers who refuse to take a Breathalyzer test. The death of Corporal Mathews is a case in point.

That's because the man charged in last week's accident, Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano, was involved in a minor accident nine months earlier after which he failed a field sobriety test. He declined, however, to take the more definitive Breathalyzer (an option in crashes that don't involve a fatality or life-threatening injury) and the charges against him were eventually dropped.

It's not certain that a failed Breathalyzer would have kept Mr. Morales-Soriano, a Mexican citizen whose immigration status is undocumented, off the road last week, but it might have made a difference. (Most drunk drivers are not illegal aliens, incidentally, but drunk drivers are often repeat offenders.)

This much is certain: Maryland's drunk drivers, particularly those who have been caught more than once, know to avoid the breath test. That's because under state law, the consequences of refusing the test aren't nearly as severe as the penalties a judge may impose on a convicted drunk driver. That's a powerful disincentive for anyone to cooperate with police - and a loophole Maryland can't afford to keep open.

At least 17 states have enacted stronger penalties for test refusals, but Maryland isn't one of them. The chief obstacle has been the House Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a defense attorney. That ought to change in the next General Assembly session. Politicians who shield drunk drivers from the consequences of their actions do a grave disservice to the memory of the many victims who die so needlessly on our roads.

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