Drunken driving laws that go into effect Wednesday are missing a key component - mandatory treatment for offenders - according to those who have had a vested interest in reducing alcohol- and drug-related traffic fatalities in Maryland.
Michael Gimbel, the former Baltimore County director of substance abuse whose program was used as a model by the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, contends that legislators should make treatment mandatory for all first-time offenders.
In fact, Gimbel said, the term "first-time offender" is a misnomer when it comes to drunken drivers.
"The reality is that these people drove drunk hundreds of times before they got caught the first time," said Gimbel, a former drug addict and alcohol addict. "Most of these people don't belong in jail; they belong in treatment."
According to statistics compiled by a legislative task force to combat driving under the influence, about a quarter of the state's traffic fatalities in 2008 were alcohol-related. In all, 152 people died in Maryland last year in alcohol-related traffic accidents and 24,000 were arrested for DUI.
The new laws appear to be targeting those who get caught driving drunk a second time, including a mandatory one-year license suspension for those with two arrests within five years, and doubling the "look back" period to 10 years for those with a second DUI charge, a step that can result in jail rather than simply probation.
"I'm not saying that the laws are bad, that we shouldn't have tough laws. We should. But we haven't balanced it with any treatment," said Gimbel, who now does consulting work on addiction and runs a hospital program warning high school athletes about steroids.
Jennie Forehand, a state senator from Montgomery County who chaired the task force, called drunken driving "an avoidable crime" and said that the new laws are a step in the right direction that might lead to first- or second-time offenders being required to undergo treatment.
"We really don't want to focus on the punishment. We want to focus on trying to kick the habit. That's really the goal of this," Forehand said at a news conference last week. "This will help ... identify these people even better than we do now."
But Caroline Cash, the executive director of the Maryland and Delaware chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her organization was disappointed that only four of 42 recommendations made by the task force passed both houses.
"These are small steps forward, but we believe there are much larger ones necessary," Cash said Friday.
MADD's recommendation to require those with at least one DUI to install an ignition interlock system, into which a motorist must blow before being able to start the car, was passed unanimously by the state Senate but did not even make it to the House for a vote.
"The ignition interlock has proven to be the most effective means to reduce drunk driving," said Cash, who added that 11 states require it for DUI offenders.
Cash said that the ignition interlock system would help "determine the issue with alcohol" and give a clearer picture as to who might need further treatment for addiction.
Gimbel doesn't believe that cutbacks in state funds is the sole reason for legislators to adopt only four of the task force's recommendations.
"This was happening when we didn't have an economic crunch," he said. "This is not a priority. This is about people not understanding addiction and the need for treatment."
Said Cash: "The public has had enough. ... Marylanders want to be protected from drunk drivers."