Ignition interlock bill is a win

Drunken-driving measure makes key improvements

April 17, 2011

It might not look that way now, but MADD and its allies won a battle in the war against drunken driving during the General Assembly session that ended a week ago.

The bill that passed in Annapolis will increase the number of drunken drivers who are compelled to go on an ignition interlock program, where they must mount a device in their vehicles that won't let them start the engine unless their breath is free of any significant amount of alcohol.

It wasn't a pretty victory, and it falls short of MADD's goals, but last-minute changes that grew out of House-Senate negotiations made real progress toward narrowing two of the biggest loopholes in the state's drunken-driving laws.

In some ways, it was a textbook case in how laws are made in the Sausage Factory on the Severn.

The Senate legislation was strong up front — requiring anyone convicted of drunken driving to install an interlock device. But it had a gap in its enforcement provisions. The convicted driver could have refused the interlock and regained driving privileges after a six-month suspension.

The bill the House passed, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr., was weak all around. Drivers convicted for the first time with blood-alcohol levels between 0.08 percent — the threshold for conviction of driving under the influence — and 0.15 percent would be spared the mandatory interlock. Judges can always require participation, but too few do.

The House and Senate bills did agree on two relatively easy targets: people with a second conviction and those younger than 21, who can't drink legally anyway. Neither is a profile in political courage. Repeat offenders are almost impossible to defend, while legislators generally find it much easier to be strict with young drivers than their more-likely-to-vote parents.

The most glaring weakness of the House bill was that it didn't impose the interlock requirement on people who refuse to take breath tests for alcohol when stopped on suspicion of drunken driving. That created an even heavier incentive to refuse the tests than exists now. After all, how do you ascertain that someone's at 0.15 percent if he or she refuses the test?

At this point, MADD was ready to pull the plug and fight for a closer-to-perfect bill in a future year. But their chief Senate ally, Democrat Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County, wasn't ready to give up. He entered into legislator-to-legislator negotiations with Vallario and House Judiciary Vice Chairman Kathleen Dumais, leaving the advocates on the outside.

The result was an improved bill. Vallario, a Democrat from Prince George's, got his way on 0.15 — which is outrageously drunk and a standard that makes sense only to the liquor lobby. But Raskin said lawmakers agreed to impose the requirement on anyone who refuses a breath test. In addition, Raskin said, those who decline to get with the interlock program face an indefinite license suspension — not just six months.

Those two provisions are critical. Current law gives convicted drivers powerful incentives to refuse a test: They have to accept a suspension, but their chances of being convicted under the DUI law are diminished. Many end up with plea deals for the lesser charge of driving while impaired, for which the legal blood- alcohol level is 0.07 percent (the real legal limit in Maryland).

Now, Raskin said, police will be able to warn drivers that if they refuse the test, the interlock is automatic. Now the suspected drunken driver faces a much tougher choice.

The indefinite license suspension is also important because many convicted drivers now might calculate that they'd rather run the risk of driving with a suspended license than install interlock devices in their cars. Many figure they can keep under the radar for six months. But when the suspension is indefinite, that changes the equation in a big way.

So on balance, the result could be helpful. Raskin said the Motor Vehicle Administration estimates it could add 4,500-5,000 drivers a year to the program.

"We didn't get the bill into the end zone, but we crossed the 50-yard line," Raskin said. That's being modest. I'd call it a field goal.

Some credit should go to Vallario, who despite his devotion to the status quo showed flexibility in the end. Dumais, picked by Speaker Michael E. Busch to smooth the chairman's rough edges, played the loyal team member in getting a weak bill through the House. That set her up to play an effective role in strengthening it in the final talks. Keep an eye on that Montgomery Democrat. She could go far.

In the end, even MADD Maryland found something positive to say.

"It basically came through with some baby steps," said executive director Caroline Cash.

That's not quite right. It's better than that. Now, it's just a matter of getting that blood-alcohol number down. Yes, the liquor lobby got what it wanted with the 0.15. But that line is indefensible in the long term. It might hold three years because legislators are tired of the interlock issue. Inevitably it will come down. The question is whether it goes to 0.08 after the next election or gets lowered in stages.

That's where drunken-driving foes need to make their impact. Because now, despite broad support for a crackdown, lawmakers can vote against MADD and get away with it.

For now, MADD remains staunchly nonpolitical and makes no endorsements. But there are legal ways a nonprofit can reward friends and smite foes without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.

Cash said the group is considering creation of a scorecard to track how legislators vote. That would be the right first step. It's good to get MADD. It's better to get even.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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