By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
New laws intended to crack down on drunk drivers who cause a quarter of Maryland's traffic fatalities take effect Thursday, to muted applause from those who advocate stronger measures and from lawyers who defend drunk drivers.
Although state officials have described them as "sweeping changes," others are less charitable about the reforms, which increase fines and license-suspension time for repeat offenders; target underage drinkers who are caught red-handed; and restrict the use of probation to twice within 10 years.
"Small steps," said Caroline Cash of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"Very incremental," said Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic.
"Nothing earth-shattering," said Gill Cochran, a lawyer who defends people charged with drunken driving.
All three agreed that the most effective way to keep drunks off the road is to use an ignition interlock device that keeps a car from starting if the driver has had too much to drink. A bill mandating their use in several circumstances sailed through the state Senate this year but never emerged from a House committee.
"The interlock allows the person to keep his job, to continue to coach Little League and to go shopping for groceries. The only thing they can't do is drink and drive," said Cash, executive director of the Chesapeake region of MADD.
"We tell people to take the interlock," Cochran said. "It's much more effective than taking away the license because without it, these guys are going to drive anyway."
Repeat offenders are a major problem on the roads. A 2008 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 25,120 Maryland drivers had three or more drunken-driving convictions, 3,980 had five or more and one person had 21. That year, the state had 152 alcohol-related traffic deaths.
The use of interlocks, which require a driver to blow into them to start the car, has gained widespread acceptance nationally, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Arlington-based institute said it found that six in 10 people favored their use, and 40 percent said they would want one in their own car if it were offered as an option.
All but three states and the District have some form of interlock law, from those that make them an option to avoid loss of license to those that mandate them for drivers who are convicted or who avoid conviction by agreeing to serve probation.
Virginia mandates their use for two-time offenders who want to keep driving. Maryland law says they may be used, and legislation that would have changed "may" to "must" in many cases died in a House committee chaired by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's).
Vallario, a defense lawyer, said the state's current law was sufficient.
"If you take the test and blow a 1.5 [blood-alcohol level] and you want an interlock, you can get it," he said.
Vallario said mandating their use could cause problems for people convicted of drunken driving who "don't have a car because we can't compel them to buy a car and put one of these in it."
The laws taking effect Thursday include one that says judges cannot offer probation before judgment to the same person twice in a 10-year span. A "PBJ," as it's known, allows someone to avoid a conviction -- and the driver's license points that can lead to higher insurance rates -- if other probation requirements are met.
Cochran dismissed that as "inconsequential."
"No judge would give you a second PBJ within 10 years," he said. "Effectively, the new law is what they've been doing anyway."
Other new laws increase fines to as much as $500, allow for up to two months in jail and mandate a one-year loss of license for two convictions within five years. The final law bans consumption of alcohol by those younger than 21 and makes it a crime to provide it to underage drinkers. That law was so thoroughly amended, including removal of a provision that would have cost underage drinkers their driver's licenses, that MADD asked the governor to veto it.
A ban on text-messaging while driving also takes effect Thursday in Maryland, as do changes in requirements for teenagers seeking a license. Teenagers must spend nine months driving with a learner's permit, instead of six, before becoming eligible for a provisional license.
The minimum age for receiving a full license becomes 18, and cellphone use while driving is banned until drivers reach that age. Parents also are able to have a teenager's learner's permit or provisional license revoked.