Drunken-driving reforms: Still stuck in neutral

February 09, 2011|By Kurt Gregory Erickson

Drunken driving is on the rise in Maryland.

Alcohol-related traffic deaths are down nationally — a 7.4 percent reduction in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They are down in a majority of U.S. states. Maryland, however, bore witness to a double-digit percentage increase in such completely preventable fatalities in 2009.

On average, and according to NHTSA figures, Maryland loses three people every week in alcohol-related traffic crashes (those in which a vehicle operator had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher).

And while this Maryland public health and public safety issue has been addressed in the schoolhouse, courthouse and family house, the State House has been glacial, at best, in its pace in recent years to address one of Maryland's most frequently committed violent crimes.

After creating a statewide task force in 2007 to make recommendations on how best to combat drunken driving in Maryland, state lawmakers have been notable for their lack of serious action on the issue:

•In 2008, they deferred to the "ongoing" task force.

•In 2009, they largely dismissed and/or diluted the task force's recommendations.

• Last year, virtually no drunken-driving legislation advanced in the General Assembly, as lawmakers claimed there wasn't consensus on what an offender's blood-alcohol level should be to trigger the automatic use of "interlock" devices that prevent the starting of a vehicle if alcohol is detected on the driver's breath. (This, when Maryland has had on its books, for nearly a decade, a uniform blood-alcohol level of .08 for drivers considered by state law as a criminal offense.)

If the road to addressing drunken driving in Maryland goes through Annapolis — as it must — then the roadmap to this destination lies in the recommendations, now gathering dust, of this "big tent" DUI task force.

Maryland's Task Force to Combat Driving Under the Influence of Drugs and Alcohol was a 23-member body unanimously approved by Maryland's Senate and House of Delegates and consisting of representatives from Maryland's judicial, legislative, law enforcement, health, traffic safety and hospitality sectors. The task force made 42 recommendations to Gov. Martin O'Malley in October 2008

The task force's recommendations included:

•making all convictions for driving while impaired (DWI) and blood-alcohol test refusal "count toward meeting [Maryland's] repeat offender statute" (rather than applying such to just those repeatedly found guilty of violating Maryland's DUI and "controlled dangerous substance" laws, as passed in Annapolis in 2009);

•imposing an "automatic six-month suspension of the driver's license" for teens convicted of either possessing or consuming alcohol (rather than simply making convicted underage drinkers pay a fine, a punishment lawmakers maintained in 2009);

•recommending strategies for "lowering Maryland's high [blood-alcohol test] refusal rate";

•and supporting the "increased use of ignition interlocks for first-time (DUI) offenders."

Today, more than two years after the DUI task force issued its recommendations, much of what it suggested remains shelved at best — and ignored at worst.

Setting up a task force to deal with this serious public health and safety issue, and then dismissing or watering down those very recommendations, is not political leadership. It is, instead, an abandonment of a much-needed route to saving lives in Maryland.

Kurt Gregory Erickson is president of the Maryland nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program as well as legislative vice chairman of the Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition. His e-mail is kurt@wrap.org.

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