Deaths, Tears, Laws


Once again this year, the Maryland General Assembly will be asked to see the necessity of stricter laws against drunken driving, and once again an appeal will come from grieving students aided by local legislators.

A crash on River Road in Montgomery County last Sept. 6 killed two Walt Whitman High School students, left two others badly injured and turned the crash site into a shrine for the victims.

The car's 16-year-old driver, Elizabeth Clark, had a blood-alcohol level of .17, well above the legal limit in Maryland of .10. She and her friend Katherine Zirkle, also 16, were killed. That crash will bring another band of witnesses to Annapolis for legislative hearings March 15.

More than tears will be needed to keep drinkers out of their cars, though, and Del. Gilbert J. Genn, whose district includes Walt Whitman High, has two ideas.

"There is a hard-core element that needs to be stopped," he says. He needed no more convincing, he says, when he saw one of the survivors quoted in the newspaper.

"That's what teen-agers do. They drink. I mean, get real," she said in the article.

Perhaps so, says Mr. Genn, but he proposes to separate them from their driver's licenses if they are caught. He has also joined those who want Maryland to adopt the so-called "illegal per se" law.

Under that statute, drivers are automatically guilty if caught driving with more than the legal limit of alcohol in their systems. A trial would be necessary almost exclusively for the purpose of setting punishment.

Mr. Genn, a lawyer, has opposed the measure in the past because he felt it removed the presumption of innocence. Now, bTC though, he thinks the Assembly and its Judiciary Committee must find better arguments for rejecting the illegal per se legislation. He maintains that it is "insulting" to say, as many have, that the tougher sanctions are rejected by a lawyer-dominated legislature voting its economic interest.

"The constitutionality has been upheld," he says. With several new members on the Judiciary Committee, "the bill has a good chance of passing," he predicted.

Forty-six states already have such laws. Proponents of the law say it would reduce the latitude of defense lawyers, increase the likelihood that drunken drivers will be found guilty -- and send a message to would-be violators.

Losing funds

The legislature's rejection of earlier efforts to pass the bill disqualify the state for more than $1 million in federal funds granted to states that have toughened their drunken driving laws.

Further advances in the struggle against drinking drivers are made more difficult for another reason: Though many thousands of Americans are still killed each year in crashes involving alcohol, many believe the problem is less pressing because progress has been made.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena announced another drop in the number of persons killed and a further reduction in the percentage of highway deaths linked to alcohol.

In 1982, 57 percent of road deaths, or 25,165, were caused by drinking drivers. Last year, the figure was 16,884, or 42 percent of all deaths. Both figures were down slightly from 1993, when 44 percent, or 17,461, died in alcohol-related crashes.

Maryland, too, showed improvement, according to Jennifer L. Higley, acting chief of safety programs at the State Highway Administration: An estimated 199 deaths, or 30 percent of highway fatalities, were related to drinking, down from 292, or 43 percent of fatalities a year earlier.

"We think we're back on the right track," Ms. Higley said. Two years ago, in 1992, the figures were 227 alcohol-related fatalities, 30 percent of the total.

At a recent town meeting on drinking drivers held at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, an array of police, public health representatives and advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving challenged the idea that drunken driving was in decline.

Donna Becker, an official of MADD, says she believes many drinkers are behind the wheel on Maryland highways, but they are less likely to be apprehended because budget-cutting has reduced manpower available for patrols.

A Baltimore police captain said that the city does not have a drunken driving unit but that findings from recent sobriety checkpoints on city streets convince him one is needed.

The town meeting participants also discussed the problem of fake identification used by minors to buy alcoholic beverages in bars and package stores. One of the Walt Whitman students killed in last September's crash had a fake identification card.

Pena's optimism

Mr. Pena said he believes that the nation can reduce the 1994 figure by another 6,000 over the next 10 years.

"Our success over the past several years means that this new goal will demand a new way of achieving results with comprehensive efforts by state, local and community organizations developing and sharing strategies aimed at repeat offenders and high-risk youth," he said.

Some changes adopted in other states have faced resolute opposition when introduced in Maryland. The "illegal per se" statute was not part of MADD's legislative agenda here this year -- in part because MADD felt its limited energies should be focused on other proposals with better prospects of passage.

Last year, the State Prosecutors Association elected not to pursue a bill that would have compelled persons suspected of drunken driving to take a blood-alcohol test after crashes resulting in serious injuries. Until last year, the law required the test only in cases where someone died immediately. Efforts to make that law tighter had failed for eight years.

Driven by yet another tragedy, the law was changed so that the test cannot be avoided after crashes that result in "life-threatening injury."

Momentum for the new law came from friends and relatives of Anne Kristen Davis, a 12-year-old Magothy River student who was killed in a crash involving a drunken driver in late 1993.

This year it will be Walt Whitman's turn.

"We really need to step in before death occurs," Delegate Genn says. His motivation goes back even further than last year's crash.

When he was a junior in high school, a good friend was killed in an alcohol-related crash on the Capital Beltway.

"When you see that empty seat in front of you in home room, and you realize it's forever, it has a lasting impact," he said.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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