ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 17 -- House of Delegates leaders proposed a special commission today to study the problem of drunken driving in Maryland, but said that didn't preclude the passage this year of measures that would toughen the state's drunken driving laws.
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent) said the commission would be made up of judges, state's attorneys, legislators, members of the executive branch and representatives of private industry and such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It would be charged with developing a master strategy for combatting the problem of drunk and drugged drivers, he said, and report its findings by December, in time for the 1989 legislative session.
But Mitchell and House Judiciary Committee Chairman William S. Horne (D-Talbot) said that didn't mean that Horne's committee -- traditionally the stumbling block in efforts to toughen the state's drunken driving laws -- would automatically reject this year's initiatives.
And Horne said he didn't believe opponents would use the creation of the commission as an argument against making changes in the laws now. "It wouldn't be accurate," he said.
Advocates of tougher regulations and penalties are optimistic about their chances this year to finally make a few changes in the state's laws.
Because of the support of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), a long-resisted change to lower the blood-alcohol content limit for determining drunkenness now appears to have a good chance of passing, its supporters say.
The change would bring Maryland in line with 48 other states by reducing from 0.13 to 0.10 the amount of alcohol in the blood before a driver could be found to be intoxicated. It also would reduce from 0.08 to 0.07 the alcohol amount that determines whether a person is legally under the influence.
"Maryland sticks out like a sore thumb on this," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), one of the Senate sponsors of the change.
Other bills being advocated this year include one that would give judges the option of requiring that a breath analyzer be hooked up to the ignition system of a problem driver's car. The "interlock" device would keep a person who has a high blood alcohol content from starting the engine.
A few judges have already used the system, but others believe that its use must be more clearly authorized in the law.
Another bill would set up an "administrative per se" law, similar to one already established in many states and the District. The law would make it easier for a police officer to immediately revoke a drunk driver's license, and set up an administrative hearing so the driver could recover it.
All of the measures are still awaiting action in legislative committees. The path is expected to be easier in the Senate, but changes in the composition of the House Judiciary Committee, which has traditionally opposed changes in the law, are the reason for the optimism of supporters of tougher laws.
Mitchell said that any changes made in the law this year would not affect the need for the task force. "It's time to get everyone in the same room," he said.