Wednesday, April 21, 2010

JOSEPH F. VALLARIO JR., chairman of the House Judiciary Comittee in Maryland and a defense attorney by profession, has made a career of making problems go away for drunk drivers -- both in the courthouse and in the legislature. He proved it once again in the recently ended legislative session in Annapolis by killing a measure that has proven effective elsewhere in preventing drunk drivers from operating vehicles. As a result, Maryland missed an opportunity to diminish the carnage on its roads, and the General Assembly blew a chance to rehabilitate its reputation as a haven of good-old-boy lawmakers in bed with special interests such as the alcohol industry.

Mr. Vallario killed a bill that would have allowed convicted drunk drivers to start their cars only after after blowing into the mouthpiece of devices installed on their dashboards that determine whether they are sober. The devices, called ignition interlocks, are simple and effective. In New Mexico and Arizona, where they are required for those guilty of driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or above -- a 180-pound man who's downed more than four beers in a hour, for instance -- they've helped cut the number of liquor-related accidents and deaths. The bill was passed without dissent by the state Senate and backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the state police, Gov. Martin O'Malley, and, quite probably, a majority of the members of Mr. Vallario's committee.

We say "quite probably" because there's no way to know for sure. Mr. Vallario, after offering an array of phony compromises designed to preserve something close to the status quo, never allowed his committee to vote on the bill or even debate it. Among other ideas, Mr. Vallario said he would allow legislation requiring the devices, but only for convicted offenders whose blood alcohol content was .15, about twice the legal limit for drunk driving. (The law already requires such offenders to choose between installing the devices and having their licenses revoked or suspended.) He now says he would have accepted a .12 BAC -- meaning a 180-pound man could still drink six beers in an hour before the devices would become mandatory -- although none of the bill's advocates heard him make the offer. In any case, Mr. Vallario's so-called deal effectively would allow more than half of those stopped on suspicion of drunken driving to avoid the ignition interlock requirement. With good reason, the bill's backers and its House sponsor, Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), said no thanks.

Mr. Vallario and his pals in the alcohol industry insist they are only trying to protect first-time offenders who might be "one sip over the line." In fact, none of them are really first-time offenders, since Maryland gives most of them a free pass known as "probation before judgment." And the overwhelming majority of those arrested for drunken driving have driven under the influence of liquor many times without being caught. Moreover, about a third of the drivers responsible for the deaths of 152 people on Maryland roads in alcohol-related accidents last year had blood alcohol levels below .15.

In Virginia, a similar bill sailed through the House of Delegates this year but died in a committee vote in the state Senate, where it was opposed by lawmakers who, like Mr. Vallario, make their living as defense lawyers. But it is mainly in Annapolis that the liquor lobby's winning percentage over the decades is unsurpassed. This year, the liquor lobby also managed to safeguard the absurd ban on the direct shipment of wine to Maryland homes and to kill a proposed increase in the tax on spirits, which the state last raised in 1955. The liquor lobby relies heavily on old-guard lawmakers like Mr. Vallario and the Senate president, Thomas V. "Mike" Miller. Its influence may start to fade once Mr. Vallario and his ilk leave the scene -- which could be sooner than both would like. For the first time in memory, Mr. Vallario faces a primary challenge from a credible opponent, Percel O. Alston Jr., former president of the Prince George's County's Fraternal Order of Police. Mr. Alston supported the interlock legislation.

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