The Drinkers Roll On

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"THEY WEREN'T doing anything wrong. They were just sitting there," said Kay Snyder, mother of David Snyder, one of three 16-year-old boys who were in a car near Annapolis on a Saturday night, waiting for a traffic light to change. A pickup truck slammed into them from behind, turning their car into a ghastly fireball. David Snyder was pronounced dead shortly after the crash, Kevin Durm died later, and Nick Kirby was treated for a head injury and a burned left hand. Police said the driver of the pickup, Linda Lee Nichols, 47, failed a breath test. The Post's Daniel de Vise and Ylan Q. Mui reported that according to authorities, Ms. Nichols's blood alcohol level surpassed the legal limit. As for the three youths, police noted that none had been drinking anything stronger than a cola.

The Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office told us last Friday that Ms. Nichols had not been charged pending the outcome of an investigation. As it happens, Maryland officials have had their fill of alcohol-related traffic fatalities and investigations in recent years, even as the numbers nationwide have declined. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the District and Virginia reported declines in 2004, while the totals in Maryland, especially in cases involving high blood alcohol content of a driver or motorcyclist, rose compared with 2003.

What gives in Maryland? Though state officials have no clear-cut explanation for the increases, neither the governor nor the legislative committee leadership in Annapolis has taken the issue seriously enough. "Annapolis continues to be a killing field for legislation" effectively addressing drunken driving, says Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery), who speaks from frustrating experience as a longtime champion of citizen safety measures. "We are on a complacent plateau, and the drunks are gaining on us."

Stiff punishment for drinking drivers takes a back seat every session. Many first-time offenders are given probation before judgment, under which charges are dropped if there are no more offenses in five years. Mr. Bronrott and state Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) have pressed repeatedly to extend the probation period to 10 years, but their proposals wind up as legislative fatalities -- and dangerous drinkers wind up on the roads again.

The "booze it and lose it" and "click it or ticket" rhymes may be catchy, but police say too many drinkers still have reason to believe that their chances of getting in serious legal trouble are slim. More roving patrols and sobriety checkpoints could chip away at that perception, along with tougher punishment. So would a law increasing the penalties for refusing to take a blood-alcohol-content test. Bills that would have done this were killed, never came to a vote or were withdrawn during this year's session.

Will anyone in Annapolis take the lead and push for action? Does it have to come from yet another study of the problem? Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has done little to highlight the issue or to push for more effective laws, and the lawmakers who could move bills bury them instead. Little wonder that Maryland is losing ground -- and lives -- as the rolling killers ride on.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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