Insurance News

Safety Activists Hopeful About Drunken Driving Bills

Posted on: March 9, 2009

Some Maryland safe-driving advocates say they are more optimistic than they’ve been in years that the legislature will pass laws to curb drunken driving, particularly among repeat offenders and drivers younger than 21.

For the first time in 20 years, the advocates say, five bills submitted to the General Assembly are supported by a state task force with a broad range of viewpoints. In addition to police and judges, the panel’s 23 members included defense lawyers and the state’s restaurant and beer wholesaler industries. The bills also took on a high profile when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) included them in his legislative agenda.

State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen, who chaired the panel, said it “did a very comprehensive review of the entire DUI problem.” The group collected data showing which laws and programs were most effective throughout the country, he said.

“We wanted to have research results that showed what actually resolved the problems,” Pedersen said.

One of the legislative proposals would automatically suspend for six months the driver’s license of anyone younger than 21 who is convicted of possessing alcohol illegally. An offender without a license would have to add six months to the time it takes to get one.

Pedersen said 37 states have such “use and lose” laws.

“Studies show the one thing young people tend to value more than anything is their driver’s license,” Pedersen said. “The threat of losing their license does change behavior.”

Another bill would allow people arrested on drunken driving charges to be eligible for probation before a court judgment every 10 years. Such court findings are now permitted every five years.

A Probation Before Judgment ruling allows someone to avoid a conviction — and the driver’s license points that can lead to higher insurance rates — if he or she completes treatment or other requirements of probation. The proposal is aimed at allowing fewer repeat offenders to escape appropriate punishment and treatment, the task force said.

Another bill would require police to request alcohol testing of all drivers involved in life-threatening or deadly crashes. The data could not be used in court but would help researchers studying the involvement of alcohol and other drugs in fatal crashes. Drivers would face no penalty for refusing.

Police now must conduct sobriety tests in serious crashes only when they think a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a Montgomery County police official said.

The proposals, which are scheduled for committee hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, would help Maryland keep up with other states that are doing more to crack down on drunken driving, the task force said.

The state needs to do a better job tracking drunk drivers as they proceed through an “overtaxed” court system that many prosecutors and police view as “cumbersome” and unable to stop repeat offenders, the panel’s 98-page report said.

The proposals make up the most comprehensive legislative package aimed at drunk drivers in about seven years, said Kurt Erickson, president of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

Erickson, whose group had a member on the task force, said safety advocates are concerned that the number of people killed in drunken driving crashes in Maryland has remained steady. Between 2004 and 2007, the state maintained an annual average of about 220 alcohol-related fatalities, according to the task force’s report.

Erickson said groups such as his that pushed the General Assembly to establish the task force in 2007 were inspired by a Virginia panel that helped toughen that state’s laws in 2004. A similar task force reviewed Maryland’s laws about 20 years ago.

“Other states have been more aggressive in prosecuting drunk driving,” Erickson said. “Maryland needed a kick-start.”

The legislation’s toughest hurdle might be its first: getting out of the House Judiciary Committee, where similar bills have died.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), a member of the task force and the Judiciary Committee, said she is hopeful that the scientific evidence presented by the task force will help the legislation through.

The bills “come with a research-backed task force report that says why these five initiatives are important and can make a difference,” Dumais said.

Most of the task force’s recommendations — 42 in all — would not require new laws. They would establish programs or administrative rules to increase awareness, better identify problem drinkers and improve anti-drunken driving lessons in schools and drivers education classes.

Chris Flohr, a board member of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association and a task force member, said he was pleased that the panel recognized that many offenders need help with serious addictions.

“Alcoholism and drug abuse are the reigning champs of what drives the criminal justice system,” said Flohr, a lawyer in Anne Arundel County. “When you’re dealing with drunk driving cases, it’s easy to demonize these people, but it’s the perfect opportunity in many cases to deal with the treatment issue.”

©2009The Washington Post Company

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