SHE IS ONLY 16 months old, but little Laura Lamb of Mount Airy, Md., is paralyzed, and has been, ever since a car accident caused by one of the most lethal failures in automobiles today: the failure of people behind the wheels to stay sober. The driver responsible for this accident had several prior convictions for drunken driving. This might have occurred anywhere in the country, but it happened in Maryland, which has some of the weakest drunk-driving laws in the country.
But drunk drivers needn't hold their breath, because the Maryland lawmaker with the most influence in this matter -- Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has never lifted a finger to tighten up the laws effectively, and he doesn't appear inclined to do so now. As he sees it, making the law tougher would "only help lawyers because the rougher the penalty the more cases they get." Maryland's law is not "working perfectly," he says, "but it is working better than other."
That's not quite how others see it. The American Council on Alcoholism, Inc., a voluntary organization that has monitored these laws around the country and the world for the better part of 25 years, calls the Maryland laws "deplorable" and charges that efforts in the legislature to improve them have been "stonewalled."
Among the changes sought by this and other concerned organizations is a lowering of the blood alcohol concentration standard in Maryland from what is the highest level in the country, .15 percent to .10 percent -- which is the current standard in many places, including the District of Columbia and Virginia. Witnesses also have urged that the lesser offense of driving while impaired be defined as having a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent instead of .10 percent. But Mr. Owens argues that because relatively few drivers would fall in such a new category, change is not justified; as for what other states do, he notes that offenders are frequently allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving.
But all of these arguments pale in Maryland, where nearly 50 percent of traffic deaths are alcohol-related. It is true that on a national level, improvements in the National Driver Register -- an index of more than 6.5 million suspended and revoked drivers -- could speed information across state lines and help curb the issuance of licenses to irresponsible drivers. But the repeated blocking by Mr. Owens of bills to improve Maryland's laws should not be permitted any longer in Annapolis. After Laura Lamb's accident, Gov. Harry Hughes appointed a task force to consider this matter, and its recommendations from these hearing are due next Wednesday. Among them should be proposals to revise the state standards, and Gov. Hughes and leaders in the general assembly should see them to enactment in the next session.