Lillian DeVenny drove two hours this week over icy roads from her Virginia Beach home to Richmond to give state legislators a message: Put drunken drivers in jail.
In Annapolis, Dot Sexton of Prince George's County and Geraldine Donald of Anne Arundel County--both of whom had teen-age children killed by drunken drivers--told legislative committees this week that Maryland's drinking age should be raised from 18 to 21 or that drunk driving laws should be tougher.
In the District, council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) recently introduced a bill she said would treat drunken drivers like "dangerous weapons." Under her proposal a 160-pound man who consumed two standard shots of 86-proof whiskey in an hour should have enough liquor in his body to be presumed drunk.
The carnage caused by drunken drivers has become a political issue this year, when all legislators in Maryland and Virginia and about half of D.C.'s council members face reelection.
Businesses, civic groups, churches, editorial writers and a new grass-roots group, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), many of whose members have lost family members in drunken driving accidents, have barraged legislators with a collective call for tougher laws against drunken driving. They include mandatory jail terms and a higher legal drinking age. Drinking was involved in about half of the nation's 51,000 traffic deaths in 1980, according to federal officials.
"Today is my daughter Carrie's birthday," DeVenny, the vice president of Virginia's MADD, said at a Wednesday press conference organized by Sen. A. Joe Canada (R-Virginia Beach) to announce his introduction of one of the toughest drunken driving bills in the nation. "She was killed by a drunk driver."
Canada is one of three Virginia legislators introducing drunken driving bills modeled on new California laws prompted by a MADD campaign. California officials said its laws, which include mandatory jail terms and license suspensions, led to a 43 percent reduction in traffic deaths during the New Year's holiday.
In Maryland, the measure to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 for beer and light wine has the support of most key legislators and Gov. Harry Hughes. That age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1974. But with recent statistics suggesting that the 18- to 20-year-old age group is causing many of the nation's alcohol-related fatalities, there is a push to raise the drinking age to 21 again. Other tougher drunken driving laws also have been proposed.
"They will pass because it's an election year," says Maryland Sen. Victor Crawford (D-Montgomery). "Who wants to be known as voting against drunk driving bills?"
In Virginia, legislators have argued in the past that tougher drunken driving laws would crowd jails and put social drinkers--some of whom are respectable citizens--in jail for what many regard as minor offenses. This year, however, legislators in Richmond say the mounting public pressure may give tougher legislation a better-than-usual chance of passing.
"I sense a favorable feeling," said Del. Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), a senior member of the Northern Virginia delegation. Del. Warren Barry (R-Fairfax), who for years has argued for stricter laws governing the sale of liquor to youths, is not as optimistic.
The reason: measures will be sent to a House Courts of Justice Committee, which is dominated by defense attorneys. In the past, that committee has shown little sympathy for mandatory sentencing bills that restrict a lawyer's plea bargaining ability.
"If the public outcry is loud enough, even that committee will respond to it," says Del. James Almond (D-Arlington), a former prosecutor and a member of the committee.
Defense lawyers in the Maryland legislature also have opposed mandatory sentencing bills.
Shackleton's bill in the District to reduce the blood alcohol level needed for a presumption of drunkenness was introduced two weeks ago. No organized opposition has developed to that bill, which does not change drunken driving penalties in the city, where a first conviction brings a mandatory license suspension and a possible $500 fine or six months in jail.
District police also have reinstated a $135,000 federally financed program to pay for special D.C. police teams to monitor drivers' alcohol levels on certain weekends.
First offenders in Virginia, under Canada's bill, would either go to jail for 48 hours or lose their license for 90 days as a mandatory minimum sentence. Under present Virginia law, drunk drivers can receive sentences up to six months in jail and a fine of $500. If convicted drivers refused to enter the state's Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP), licenses would be suspended for six months to a year.
A second conviction would carry a minimum jail sentence of 14 days, a fine of $500 to $1,000, mandatory attendance at ASAP for a year and the suspension of a driver's license for a year.
Upon a third conviction for driving while intoxicated, the driver would receive a minimum jail sentence of six months, a $1,000 fine and the suspension of his or her driver's license for three years.
"The penalties are very severe," said Canada. "But the message has got to be sent to the public."
Under current Maryland law, a driver is considered under the influence if he has a .08 alcohol level in his blood. Conviction for that offense now carries a fine of up to $500 and as long as two months in jail. A .13 alcohol level is now considered strong evidence, but not absolute proof that a person is driving while intoxicated. For driving while intoxicated, a conviction now carries a maximum $1,000 fine and one year in jail for a first offense and $1,000 and two years in jail for a second offense.
The new measures would make a .13 alcohol reading sufficient legal proof of intoxication. Another bill mandates a six-month minimum license suspension for persons who refuse to take alcohol tests. A third bill would treat juveniles as adults when charged with drunken driving offenses.
Maryland's Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams said she is drafting a separate bill that would allow the state to confiscate the automobile of any person driving after his or her license has been revoked because of a drunken driving conviction.
Other Maryland bills would equip the state police with video-tape equipment to record on the scene a suspected drunken driver's responses to alcohol tests and require mandatory license suspensions for drunken driving.
In 1980, about half of the 1,291 Virginia drivers involved in fatal accidents had consumed some alcohol, according to police reports. Last year in Maryland there were 430 alcohol-related auto deaths, according to State Police. District police statistics show 17 persons died in the city last year in alcohol-related traffic wrecks.
In both Maryland and Virginia liquor lobbies have kept a low profile in the face of mounting public pressure. "People don't realize that the drunk driver is not the guy who staggers down the street from tavern to tavern," said Maryland's House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens this week at a reception sponsored by the Maryland State Licensed Beverages Association. "The drunk driver is everybody."
Also contributing to this article was Washington Post staff writer Tom Sherwood.