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Maryland lawmakers need to stop coddling drunk drivers

Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A24

MARYLAND'S GENERAL Assembly, which has coddled drunk drivers for decades, is once again busy gutting legislation that would end the policy of forgiveness for those who get sloshed before getting behind the wheel. This is no great surprise given the overweening power of the alcohol industry and its lawmaker pals in Annapolis, many of whom hold day jobs that include defending drunk drivers in court. What's more surprising is that for once, there is serious pushback from those who are serious about getting tough with drunk drivers.

What's at issue this year is legislation that would require the installation of a device in the cars of convicted drunk drivers. The device, called an ignition interlock, would block drivers from starting their car until they blow into a mouthpiece that analyzes blood alchohol level to determine whether a driver is sober. If he is, the car will start (and the driver will be retested randomly as he drives); if not, the information will be stored and be accessible to the authorities.

The devices have proven effective at cutting the number of alchohol-related accidents and deaths on the road. That has been particularly true in states such as New Mexico and Arizona, where they are mandatory for offenders whose blood alchohol content was .08. They are less effective in cutting the carnage on highways in states such as Virginia, where they are required only for drivers who have been convicted of offenses involving blood-alcohol content twice as high -- in other words, drivers who could barely stand, let alone drive.

In Annapolis, legislation to extend the use of the devices received its first blow from an amendment that would exempt more than half of all first offenders -- those who receive sentences of probation before judgment. Now the House Judiciary Committee, the graveyard of many attempts to get serious about drunken driving, is toying with further measures to weaken the bill.

The bill's backers fear that the committee's chairman, Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), will go the Virginia route, making the devices mandatory only for repeat offenders with a blood-alcohol content of .15. That would do little to change the status quo in Maryland, which gives convicted offenders with a .15 blood-alcohol content the choice between having the device installed and having their license suspended.

Lawmakers who defend drunk drivers for a living, and in the legislature, worry about the harm suffered by drivers who may be "one sip over the line." They'd do better to worry about the scores of people killed every year on the state's roads by drunk drivers, and to require that the interlock devices be installed in the cars of all first-time drunk drivers.

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