If MADD is maddening, there's a reason

Adversaries using ignition interlock debate to fight '08 law

March 14, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

MADD can be maddening.

In a legislative fight, advocates from Mothers against Drunk Driving don't always play by Annapolis rules.

This has been a source of immense frustration to the Democratic leadership of the House of Delegates. While the Senate threw off the influence of the liquor industry last year and voted overwhelmingly for a tough, MADD-backed bill requiring the installation of ignition interlock devices on the vehicles of all convicted drunken drivers, House leaders balked and the bill died.

The person who personally prevented a vote was House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr., a longtime opponent of tougher drunken driving legislation. But the person indirectly responsible for the demise of the bill was House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a natural consensus-seeker who sought to craft a compromise that would please everybody.

But when MADD wouldn't cave to Vallario's demands or split the difference, Busch backed his chairman. After the election, Busch kept Vallario in his position despite rumblings in his own caucus, and the same battle lines are being drawn again as hearings begin on a variety of ignition interlock bills introduced this session.

Busch's staff made it crystal clear last year that they were frustrated with MADD and considered the group a bunch of naive do-gooders who just didn't understand how things work in Annapolis.

But MADD knows exactly what it's up against.

The best evidence is found in the written statements and oral testimony of the state's liquor lobby.

First a little background. For many years, MADD fought on the state and national level to lower the standard for a drunken-driving conviction from a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 percent to 0.08. It was a long, drawn-out struggle against a well-heeled liquor lobby, but by mustering ample scientific evidence that a 0.08 produces an intoxication level that significantly impairs driving ability, MADD and its allies prevailed.

The turning point came when Congress adopted the 0.08 standard and told the states to do the same or take a cut in federal highway funds. Maryland, where Vallario's committee had blocked the change for years, fell in line when it adopted the law in 2001 — with Vallario leading the parade. It's the standard nationwide.

But the liquor lobby has never accepted that standard and has been looking for ways to weaken it — both in law and in public perception — ever since.

Jay Schwartz, the veteran lobbyist for the state's liquor retailers, left little doubt about the agenda when he testified before the Judiciary Committee last week. He said the industry still doesn't like .08.

"We still think that got social drinkers," he said. "We lost that battle. We're still not persuaded."

Further evidence for that can be found in the industry's lobbying against the MADD-backed ignition interlock bill now before the House committee.

In an e-mail to a reporter last week, American Beverage Institute spokeswoman Sarah Maiellano argued for a Vallario-sponsored bill that would make ignition interlocks mandatory only for first-time "offenders with high blood alcohol levels." In Vallario's bill, that means a level of 0.15 or more.

Maiellano complained the MADD bill, which applies to all drivers convicted at the 0.08 level, would affect "even first-time offenders with low blood alcohol levels," whom she also described as "marginal" violators of Maryland's drunken driving laws.

This is an obvious effort to frame the debate by redefining the terms. Certainly someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 is less drunk than someone with one of 0.15, but neither science nor common sense supports the proposition that someone who is legally drunk is a "low-BAC driver."

Under Maryland law anyone who hits 0.07 — qualifying for the charge of driving while impaired — is by definition a driver with high blood alcohol level. A reading of 0.05-0.06 could be accurately described as a "danger zone" driver. Below that, though hard-liners might object, the "low-BAC" description might be valid.

But 0.15 and above? Those aren't just "high-BAC" drivers. Those folks are sloshed-to-the-gills, drunk-as-a-skunk, extreme-BAC drivers.

Consider that a 200-pound man can chug down six margaritas or six pints of beer or eight glasses of wine in one hour and still fall short of the liquor lobby standard for high-BAC.

The kind of thinking that calls this "low-BAC" makes MADD dig in its heels. The group is confident that it will eventually prevail on its terms — and history suggests it will as political winds change. In MADD's view, trading away the 0.08 gold standard for a temporary victory on ignition interlock would be foolish.

That's the dynamic Busch has so far failed to show he grasps.

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