Interlock ignition bill races to finish line

April 12, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

It should be a bang-up day for highway safety advocates in Annapolis.

On the strength of Friday's passage of a ban on chatting on hand-held cell phones while driving, advocates can already chalk up the 2010 General Assembly session as a very good one. Winning that one after years of struggle is a significant achievement, and prevailing with broad bipartisan support in the Senate ices the cake. Also expected to pass is a bill prohibiting reading text-messages while driving - closing a loophole in last year's anti-texting law.

Whether this year goes down as a great session for highway safety depends on what happens today on the No. 1 drunken-driving bill of the session. It's a measure that would require installation of an ignition interlock device - preventing a driver from starting the engine if he or she has been drinking alcohol - on the vehicle of anyone convicted of a DUI.

The bill sailed out of the Senate unanimously, but only after it was amended to exclude violators who encounter a judge softhearted enough to give them probation before judgment. That can be a significant percentage in some jurisdictions, so that change represents a significant weakening of the original bill.

As of Friday, the bill remained mired in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Joseph Vallario, a Democrat serving parts of Calvert and Prince George's counties, appears reluctant to pass it without weakening it further. The committee has been kicking around proposals under which a driver would have to blow a .12 or .15 blood alcohol level (instead of .08, the level at which a person in Maryland is considered drunk) to qualify for the mandatory provision.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving calls that unacceptable and insists it would rather see the bill go down than accept further watering-down.

For MADD and allies, the idea of accepting a level higher than .08 is anathema. They fought hard to establish in law that .08 equals drunk, and they don't want a legal category of Drunk Lite.

(In Maryland, .07 brings a lesser charge of driving while impaired.)

The powerful alcoholic beverage industry - along with defense lawyers - would love to create that category and set the bar really high to be deemed flat-out drunk. They've been propagating the idea that folks who blow anything less than .15 (twice the legal limit in Maryland) fall into a category of "one sip over the line."

That's a tough sell - although apparently not to Vallario, himself a defense lawyer.

The picture was briefly muddied late last week when MADD and one of its allies, the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation, started sending different signals about compromise. By Friday, however, they were back in tune, and the foundation was backing MADD's stand.

So it appears the issue will come down to today. It might seem to be a lost cause - but not to those familiar with the speed at which the legislature can work when the right players decide they want action.

If House Speaker Michael E. Busch decides he wants the Senate bill on the floor without amendments, he can make it happen within hours. After all, he who makes a chairman can break a chairman. MADD folks count Gov. Martin O'Malley as an ally, but he hasn't delivered - yet.

If the bill passes the House unamended, it's a done deal. But if it's amended to set a higher blood alcohol level than .08, you can expect MADD to lean on the Senate to reject the "compromise."

If the bill goes down, the finger-pointing begins. And the folks from MADD are nothing if not expert at directing digits at folks they believe have crossed them. They don't make campaign contributions or endorse candidates, but they have considerable clout with editorial writers and other folks who determine election endorsements. They also have a network of highly motivated members who can make life miserable for perceived foes.

Underlying all this is a potential electoral dynamic: Every Republican who voted in the Senate was for a reasonably strong bill. If it dies, the only fingerprints will be those of Democrats. They could blame the intransigent advocates from MADD, but who's going to believe pols over grieving mothers? The issue would be there for the GOP to seize - and Busch and O'Malley could be the targets.

So it's going to be a fascinating day for folks at the Maryland State House - on this issue and others.

Also to be resolved are a few safety measures of interest to bicyclists. A bill creating a 3-foot buffer that motorists have to allow for bicyclists emerged from a House committee late Friday. It faces several hurdles today, but subcommittee Chairman James Malone Jr. of Arbutus says he's confident he can steer it through. Another measure, giving bicyclists more latitude to use the roadway rather than the shoulder, is still touch-and-go as lawmakers wrestle with language.

Hang on to your hats. It's going to be a bumpy ride until midnight.

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