MARYLAND HAS BEEN notoriously lenient on drunk drivers, thanks to key state legislators with law practices that include representing them and to judges who are too tolerant when it comes to repeat offenders. An exceptional surprise on Thursday was a unanimous state Senate vote for a bill stripping judges of the option of sentencing repeat offenders to community service. Instead, people convicted of drunken driving twice within five years would serve a minimum of five days in jail, and third-time offenders would serve a minimum of 10 days. That's not much, but it's better than the no jail time they often get away with now. Sponsored by Sen. Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), this much-needed message to alcohol-impaired potential killers also would require offenders to undergo a comprehensive alcohol abuse assessment and, if recommended, participate in an alcohol treatment program. Under current law, the assessment order is an option for judges.

Given the legislative slaughter of other drunken driving bills in the General Assembly so far, passage of this measure at least would begin to address the state's serious repeat-offender problem. But the bill's fate in the House is touch and go. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), a lawyer whose practice happens to include drunken driving cases, has been the final resting place of countless measures aimed at reducing drunken driving. A House version of the proposal has been sitting in the committee since February. Mr. Vallario hasn't taken a public stand on the measure yet but has promised a hearing next week.

Supporters note that, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 290 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes on Maryland roadways in 2001 -- the highest number of preventable fatalities in Maryland in more than a decade. Responsible House committee members should do whatever it takes to get this bill into law.