Ignition locks are debated

Advocates for a crackdown on drunken driving squared off against the alcoholic beverage industry Thursday over an O'Malley administration-supported bill that would require court-determined drunken drivers to install devices that would prevent their cars from being started if they have been drinking alcohol.

Proponents of the so-called ignition interlock technology went into the Senate hearing with high hopes that they can win passage of at least a compromise version of a bill that has failed in previous years. But the measure, which would make the program mandatory for even first-time offenders, still faces a steep climb - particularly in the House of Delegates.

If the measure passes, Maryland would join eight other states in requiring the devices for first-time offenders. The Maryland Department of Transportation estimates that the bill would require an additional 15,000 people to join a program that is now focused on repeat offenders.

Advocates, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation and AAA Mid-Atlantic, testified that the measure would reduce the number of people killed each year by drunken drivers on Maryland roads.

"We need to put protecting the citizens of Maryland ahead of the needs of the offenders," Caroline Cash, executive director of Maryland MADD, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "The ignition interlock protects the citizens and allows the offenders to do everything in their normal lives except drink and drive."

But opponents contend that the measure goes too far by requiring the costly devices for first-time offenders who are caught driving only a little over the legal limit - even if they are granted probation before judgment.

"We shouldn't punish someone who has one sip of wine over the limit the same way we punish hard-core alcoholics," American Beverage Institute managing director Sarah Longwell said in written testimony.

The measure passed the Senate last year only to founder in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. brings the critical eye of a longtime defense attorney to the drunken-driving bills that come before his panel.

This year, however, the bill has the public support of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has said he will sign the measure if it reaches his desk.

"That's a big help," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and vice chairman of the Judiciary committee.

Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, said Thursday that he doesn't know where his committee, which will hear the House version of the bill next week, will come down on the legislation. He would not rule out passing some version of an interlock requirement, but he signaled that he is troubled by the provision that would tell judges to require the device as a condition of probation before judgment.

Supporters of the bill suggested that provision is negotiable.

"We'll just have to hammer out an agreement between the two chambers," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who is leading the charge for the bill in the Senate.

But opponents of the measure are working hard to muster arguments that would block such an agreement.

Reliable Churchill LLP, one of the state's largest liquor wholesalers, told lawmakers the bill would undercut what it called "the bedrock of our judicial process" by taking away judges' discretion whether to order installation of the devices.