One at a time they approached the microphone in the packed legislative hearing room, and with quavering voices told the assembled Maryland senators of a family member of friend who was killed or paralyzed in an automobile accident caused by a drunken driver.
The scene was a joint hearing by two Senate committees on a collection of bills that would tighten state drunken driving laws, and the television cameras and crowds confirmed what has become increasingly apparent in the last few weeks: Drunken driving is the emotional issue of the 1981 General Assembly session.
Almost every session has such an issue -- one that attracts a crowd of legislators, reporters and the public to hearings that often border on spectacles. Last year, it was legislation against drug paraphernalia and demonstrations of such esoteric drug-use items as a face mask used by marijuana smokers. In other years, abortion or gun control took center stage. But 1981, as one Baltimore lobbyist put it, "is the year of the DWI (driving while intoxicated.)"
To date, with the General Assembly session less than a month old, 83 different bills dealing with drunken driving have been filed, about 50 more than legislators normally submit each year. Along with the dozens of legislators, Gov. Harry Hughes has submitted his own package of six bills on the subject, the result of recommendations made to him a few months ago by a task force.
Because of the huge number of bills, committees have scheduled double days of testimony, and the governor's task force, which was asked to comment on all the proposed legislation, has been unable to do so. When the task force took an initial look at some of the bills, it found "drafting problems and other kinds," in part because of the speed with which many of the bills were drawn up, according to a task force member.
Hughe's aides at today's hearing noted the large number of bills but begged the senators to focus on the governor's package. "We want those bills and we want them badly," said William Bricker, head of the Motor Vehicle Administration. "We don't want to spread ourselves thin."
Some of the bills strengthen penalties for drunken driving, others require specific tests to determine drunkenness, but the thrust is the same -- to deal with the increasing number of highway fatalities and injuries caused by the drunken driver, and in some cases, to reap some of the publicity that has centered on this highly emotional issue.
The bills, many of which are expected to pass the Senate easily but may encounter some resistance in the House, have been sparked by a recent, widely reported upsurge in highway factalities associated with alcohol. According to state police spokesman Bill Clark, highway deaths in Maryland rose by 13 percent -- from 700 to 772 -- from 1979 to 1980, and about half of the increase was attributable to drunken driving, often by young drivers. In addition, some 60 percent of persons killed in car accidents were found in postmortem examinations to have had alcohol in their blood.
But it was not statistics like these that dominated today's hearings on drunken driving. Instead the attention focused on the men and women who told of the pain and tragedy caused by drunken drivers.
"I would like to introduce my son Tommy," said Bowie resident Dot Sexton, her voice quavering with emotion. "He cannot be here today to speak for himself. He was killed in July, five days after his 15th birthday, on his way home from a fishing trip. We cannot sit still and be silent any longer."
Most of the legislators who attended the hearing today were clearly moved by the testimony of Sexton and several other women who are members of Mothers Against Drunken Drivers. "I would just like to know -- is there some way, is there something we can do to save these lives," Sen. Edward Conroy, who chaired the hearing, asked plaintively at one point.