Lawmakers are moving forward with two starkly different versions of legislation intended to increase the use of ignition interlock devices for convicted drunken drivers, setting up a possible impasse over a final bill.
The Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would require the devices for all convicted of drunken driving. The bill is supported by MADD Maryland and other highway safety advocates.
The House took the same step Wednesday with legislation supported by the liquor lobby that would narrow use of the devices to repeat offenders, those under 21 and drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent.
MADD opposes the House measure and said it would rather see no bill passed than one with a standard other than 0.08 percent, the level required for conviction on a charge of driving under the influence.
Ignition interlock systems typically require a driver to blow into a device that detects alcohol on the breath and prevents the vehicle from starting if it senses more than a minimal amount.
The devices remain on the vehicle for a set period and record any failed attempts to start the car so probation agents can check a violator's progress. Maryland courts now have the option of ordering their use, but safety activists say judges do not require the devices often enough.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Judiciary Committee chairman and sponsor of the House bill, has opposed making the devices mandatory for first-time offenders. The Prince George's County Democrat told members of the House on Wednesday that his bill would give Maryland one of the toughest ignition interlock measures in the nation.
But MADD Maryland's executive director, Caroline Cash, said Vallario's bill would do little more than codify the status quo. She said the House legislation would not be truly mandatory for those with blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 percent and above because they could elect to accept a license suspension instead of installing an interlock system.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a supporter of Vallario's bill, said there is a legitimate difference of opinion over which is the better standard. The Montgomery County Democrat said 14 states have adopted 0.08 percent as the standard for mandatory interlocks upon a first conviction, while 13 have gone with 0.15.
"The 0.15 is obviously within the realm of reasonable and rational," she said, adding that MADD had failed to show that its language was any more mandatory than Vallario's. Under both bills, she said, drivers could opt for a suspension instead of an interlock device.
Dumais said the Vallario bill would strengthen current law.
"I'm not listening to the liquor lobby," she said. "What I've listened to is various state's attorneys."
Dumais said the competing bills will likely move to a conference committee where the differences can be worked out.
"When we sit down with the Senate, we can work through and perhaps make the bill even stronger," she said.
However, the chairman of the Senate committee that approved the stronger measure said the upper house is unlikely to accept a version of the bill that MADD rejects.
"I don't think that it'll have a shot if they're opposed to it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, sponsor of the Senate bill, said safety advocates had already compromised by agreeing to exclude violators who receive probation before judgment from the mandatory provisions of the bill.
"It comes down to a clash of philosophies between those who see drunk driving as a public emergency and those who see it as a melancholy but trivial part of life we have to live with," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Cash said MADD and its allies would rather see the House bill fail because its passage would delay efforts to have "truly life-saving legislation" for several years. Such a position would be consistent with the stand MADD took last year, when it let an ignition interlock bill die in the House rather than bend on the 0.08 standard.
She said data from other states has shown that the 0.08 level — the nationally recognized standard for intoxication — is essential to the effectiveness of the program.
"If people know they're going to have interlock, it serves as a deterrent," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.