A way to curb drunken drivers

Our view: A key lawmaker has opened the door to expanded use of ignition interlock devices in Maryland — and perhaps an opportunity to save lives

March 09, 2011

Drunken-driving accident fatalities have been on the rise in Maryland. In 2009, 162 people lost their lives in alcohol-related crashes, a sharp increase from the year before. But time and time again, a key committee in the Maryland General Assembly has refused to support an effective prevention measure that has worked well in other states.

This year could be different.

The House Judiciary Committee is holding hearings this week to consider legislation intended to expand the use of ignition interlock devices that force drivers to prove their sobriety by blowing into a breathalyzer — both to start the vehicle and at periodic intervals while driving.

The technology has proved to be remarkably effective at lowering drunken-driving fatalities in states such as New Mexico, where it is required of anyone convicted of driving under the influence, even first-time offenders. A recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the devices reduce re-arrest rates for drunken driving by two-thirds.

The cost is modest — about $500 to have one installed and maintained for six months — and it's paid for by the offender. Yet the devices are opposed by the alcohol industry (and some criminal defense lawyers) and have failed to receive the Judiciary Committee's endorsement in years past.

But that could change because one of the bills under consideration is sponsored by Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the person chiefly responsible for killing such proposals in the past. He now appears interested in finding some common ground with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others who have been advocating for tougher drunken-driving laws in Maryland.

The legislation the Prince George's County Democrat has offered is far from what MADD wants (and what Maryland would need to produce the kind of reductions in drunken-driving deaths experienced elsewhere), but at least it suggests there may be an opportunity to strike a compromise.

The measure would likely expand participation in the program, but it would not make it truly mandatory — drivers could still opt to have their license suspended instead, and it applies mostly to drivers who are caught with a blood alcohol level of .15 or greater, nearly double the legal limit.

Yet, of the 162 people who died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 2009, 60 were killed by drivers with a blood alcohol level of between .14 and .08. And since those convicted with a high blood alcohol level could always opt out of the ignition interlock program under Mr. Vallario's bill, even they are still at risk of drunken driving in their own car, albeit with a suspended license.

We think the House can do better than what was presented to the committee on Wednesday, and it's encouraging to hear that Mr. Vallario and highway safety advocates are still negotiating the specifics. It would improve the chairman's bill, for instance, if it were changed to mandate ignition interlock for those who refuse a breathalyzer when pulled over by police, as too often such a refusal is used to avoid harsh punishment.

Nevertheless, experience suggests ignition interlock's supporters had better be prepared to compromise, too. A standoff with the chairman does not advance their cause. Any legislation that results in more convicted drunken drivers having ignition interlock devices installed in their cars has the potential to save lives — and that's nothing to take lightly.

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