PICK ANY member of either state legislature -- Marylander or Virginian, Democrat or Republican -- and you can count on coming up with an opponent of drunk driving. You also can count on this subject's coming up almost every year in Annapolis and Richmond, because drunk drivers have a way of killing people -- which they seem to be doing with horrifying frequency this year. While no one has come up with a law guaranteed to clear the highways of these killers, the legislatures in both states could and should be doing more to crack down on those who hit the bottle and then hit the road. Perhaps some lawmakers could use a few reminders of what's been going on lately:
There was the woman who drove her car off the road, killing her three children. She was charged with drunk driving, and had been convicted a number of times already. There were the three people killed when a pickup truck crossed the median and rear-ended their station wagon, sending it into a tractor-trailer. The pickup's driver was charged with intoxication. There were all sorts of other nightmares, many involving drivers with strings of drunk-driving charges and convictions. Why are these repeaters still speeding, weaving, smashing, crashing and killing at will?
In Maryland, leaders of the House of Delegates yesterday proposed a special commission to study drunken driving; that may produce something, but as the speaker and the chairman of the committee handling these matters said, this shouldn't be an excuse for rejecting measures already under consideration. Maryland should not have to wait another year for action in Annapolis. The legal limit for determining drunkenness is one of the most lenient in the country. Lenient, too, is the state's limit for determining driving under the influence. These should be toughened, and there should be a law that would permit immediate revocation of a driver's license pending a hearing. In Virginia, there are signs of some movement. The House of Delegates has endorsed the creation of a new felony offense called "intoxicated vehicular homicide," which prosecutors could levy against motorists (and train operators) who kill others while intoxicated.
Getting tough on drunk drivers does not have to mean capital punishment for offenders. But increased penalties -- from faster and longer liftings of licenses to longer prison sentences for repeat offenders -- can serve to scare off more would-be offenders, especially those who are not habitually drunk, but who have had a few drinks and don't realize how dangerous they are. If only they would let others do the driving, others might live.