A parent may not be overly concerned if a child's grade drops from a B-plus to a B-minus. It's still above average, after all. But what if the pupil were the state of Maryland and the class "Drunk Driving Prevention 101"? The consequences of a slight drop could mean lives lost.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) gave the state a B-minus last week on its Drunk Driving Report Card, the result of an analysis of legislative developments, policing efforts and accident statistics. Three years ago, the last time MADD published the report card, the state merited a B-plus.
MADD sees the slip--the announcement of which was timed to coincide with the accident-heavy holiday season--as evidence that the state, after years of success, has grown complacent about combating drunken driving.
Drunken driving was once treated much as car accidents--a regrettable but unavoidable part of life on the roads. But a vocal grass-roots movement led by MADD persuaded much of the country, over two decades, to view it as a type of criminal negligence. Public patience with drunk drivers quickly grew thin as well-publicized death tolls mounted. Punishments grew harsher. The campaign worked in part: There was a 30 percent drop in drunken driving deaths between 1982 and 1996. Since then, however, there has been only a 7 percent drop.
"The war on drunk driving has reached a complacent plateau characterized by many indifferent government leaders, strained law enforcement efforts and a dangerous public perception that the fight against drunk driving has been won," said MADD President Karolyn Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter Patty was killed by a drunk truck driver in Kentucky in 1988.
In 1998, there were 203 drunken driving-related deaths in Maryland, a third of all road fatalities, according to the report. Marylanders pay almost $2 billion annually to cover police, medical, repair and other expenses stemming from drunken driving accidents.
As public outrage over drunken driving grew during the late 1980s and early 1990s, MADD optimistically declared that drunken driving deaths nationwide could be reduced to 11,000 annually by 2005. Last year, 15,935 people were killed. If current trends continue, MADD's goal will not be met.
In Maryland, the group gave high marks to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) for outspoken advocacy of its cause but chided the state for numerous shortcomings including:
* Failure to pass legislation that would lower the blood-alcohol content needed to be arrested for drunken driving from .10 to .08.
* Failure to pass a law requiring that all drivers killed in car accidents be tested for blood-alcohol levels. This would likely raise the DWI fatality figure.
* Failure to pass a law that first-time DWI offenders be given mandatory jail time.
The national average on the MADD report card was a C-minus. The District rated a C-minus, the same score it received in 1996.
Virginia jumped from a B to a B-plus, putting it among the country's anti-drunken-driving elite, topped only by California's A.
Maryland's House Judiciary Committee, where the bill to lower the drunken driving threshold met its demise, particularly drew the ire of MADD. Legislators will likely reintroduce the bill in January. MADD's local chapters will make it their No. 1 priority, MADD officials said. A Glendening spokesman said the governor will fully support the effort.
"Maryland needs to continue to work aggressively to get drunk drivers off the road and do everything we can to protect the lives of our drivers," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.
Opponents of lowering the threshold argued that doing so would ensnare social drinkers who are not roadway threats. Eight of thirteen Democrats and four of six Republicans voted against the MADD-backed legislation in March.
In last week's report, MADD estimated that if every state had an .08 blood-alcohol content threshold and seat-belt-use laws, almost 1,300 drunken driving fatalities could be prevented.
But, as the B-minus grade indicates, the report was not all bad news for Maryland. MADD lauded the state for making frequent use of police sobriety checkpoints, for its stringent rules on the distribution of large kegs of beer, for its use of school-based DWI education programs, for permissive victim compensation guidelines and for an above-average bottom line: a lower overall fatality rate than the majority of states.