Maryland's highly publicized war against drunk driving has failed to significantly reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths on state highways, proponents of tough new drunk driving laws told a Senate committee today.
"We're really not making significant progress" toward ending drunk driving in Maryland, said Jerry Sachs, the Capital Centre president, who described himself as one of "a new generation who has had enough" with injuries and deaths caused by drunk driving.
Already this year alcohol has been blamed for half the 20 highway deaths in Maryland, a State Police spokeswoman said today. Last year, state police reported 298 alcohol-related traffic deaths, down from a three-year high of 354 recorded in 1983.
Sachs was one of more than two dozen people who spoke in favor of a series of legislative proposals being considered by the Judicial Proceedings Committee to strengthen laws against drunk driving.
State Sen. S. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery), chief sponsor of 10 of the 12 drunk driving bills considered today, said: "The tragedy is that these deaths are still occurring. We need a total commitment from the state to end drunken driving."
If passed into law, Shore's bills would impose an automatic 90-day suspension of the driver's license for a first drunk driving conviction and a mandatory minimum sentence of 48 hours in jail or 10 days community service for a second conviction. Another Shore bill would establish a blood-alcohol content of .10 as conclusive evidence of driving while intoxicated.
Maryland law requires at least an alcohol level of .13 and other evidence that a driver was drunk before a person may be convicted of driving while intoxicated. Forty-three other states use .10 as the threshhold for a charge of driving while intoxicated.
Shore's pending legislation is identical to bills that he filed last year, several of which were approved by the state Senate but died in the House Judiciary Committee.
Several legislators, forseeing similar bottlenecks in the House again this session, said it was unlikely that all of Shore's proposals would pass. But the judicial proceedings panel is almost certain to approve one measure that Shore filed, to impose fines of up to $1,000 for drunk driving convictions and set aside the collected fines for local alcohol and traffic safety programs, said committee chairman Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).
Maryland has won a national reputation in recent years for its series of aggressive campaigns to fight drunk driving, including sobriety checkpoints, the formation of groups of mothers and students against drunk driving, and public service advertisements. Since 1980, intense publicity surrounding the issue, and pressure from community groups, have prompted legislators gradually to stiffen the penalties for those convicted of drunk driving.
But several people said today that the existing laws do not go far enough.
"We need to tighten and strengthen our program against this grim reaper of our highways," said Montgomery County Council member Neal Potter, who several years ago lost two friends in an automobile accident attributed to a drunk driver.
Jim Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, praised legislators for Maryland's widespread use of sobriety checkpo