Haltingly and sometimes in tears, Cindi Lamb told about the accident that paralyzed her infant daughter for life. It happened at midday last Nov. 10 and the other driver was drunk.
"I remember the last time Laura felt a hug," Lamb, 25, told a Maryland legislative hearing today. "I remember the last time Laura moved her fingers and her hands and feet and legs. Now, she doesn't feel any kisses, doesn't feel any hugs, doesn't feel anything."
Sixteen-month-old Laura Lamb at her side, the Mount Airy mother turned to Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), head of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, who has repeatedly blocked bills aimed at toughening the state's drunk driving laws, considered by some observers among the weakest in the nation.
"I am convinced the primary reason for these unnecessary deaths and maimings is Joe Owens," she said. "Mr. Owens, you are wrong, dead wrong. My daughter is living proof of how wrong you have been."
The veteran lawmaker, famous for killing bills on many subjects, sat impassively through the attack. He had heard it all before.
"Well, you know," he said after he had left the hearing before it was over, "there's gotta be a villain and I guess it's me.
"But my desire is to get what will work. Making it tougher will only help lawyers become the rougher the penalty the more cases they'll get."
The emotionally charged issue is not new, and neither are the proposed solutions. But this time there is a task force appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes, following Laura Lamb's well-publicized accident, to consider the matter. Today's hearing, held jointly with the Senate Constitutional and Public Law Committee, was the fourth meeting of the task force, whose recommendations are due Oct. 1.
In was preceded by picketing of the governor's mansion by about 15 men and women whose signs said, "No more Laura Lambs" and "Joe Owens: Why do you let this happen?"
The task force has already agreed to recommend that a verdict or probation before judgement, which effectively ereases the charge, be made known to judges and law enforcement officers in drunken-driving cases. Under the present practice, drunk drivers sometimes receive lenient first-offender treatment the second time around because nobody knows of their prior offenses.
On another key change, however, the task force has deadlocked. This is a proposal to revise the standard for driving while intoxicated by making the legal standard of drunkenness .10 rather than .15 percent blood-alcohol content and defining the lesser offense of driving while impaired as having a blood-alcohol level of .08 rather than .10 percent.
Lamb and others here strongly advocated the change in a state where, statistics show, nearly 50 percent of traffic deaths are alcohol-related and the laws are less stringent than elsewhere. "The laws in the state are deplorable," said the American Council on Alcoholics, a Baltimore-based group that alleges its reform effort in Maryland have "been stonewalled."
Owens, for one, demurred. "It's not working perfectly," he said of the state's present drunk-driving law, "but it is working better than others."
For one thing, Owens and others said, too few drivers would fall in the proposed new impaired category to justify the change, while the increased number of arrests could clog the courts. And if Maryland had only one standard, as is the case with most states, Owens said, drunk drivers would plead guilty to reckless driving and be "out of the alcoholic area where they could be indentified and treated."
Owens pointed to the District of Columbia and Virginia, where the standard for drunken driving is .10 pecent blood alcohol, and said offenders there frequently are allowed to plead guilty to reckless driving.
"It is very difficult to suspend or revoke the license of a man who depends on driving to support his family," said Baltimore Judge Robert J. Gerstrung, adding another point of view.
The hearing droned on with a parade of witnesses who provided no clear consensus on what should be done. Along with Owens, Cindi Lamb left early. Her daughter requires constant care, including the suctioning of mucous from her lungs, a task her mother performs regularly through a tube.
The driver responsible for the accident had several prior convictions for drunken driving.
Since the accident, Cindi and Alan Lamb, her husband, have seperated and she has given up her job teaching the deaf and applied for welfare in order to spend full time with her daughter.
"The sun rises, the sun sets, Laura's paralyzed and that's the way it is," she said.