Line in the sand against DWI


A Maryland man convicted yesterday on charges involving homicide by motor vehicle, driving while intoxicated and automobile manslaughter said he only had three beers that night. His speech wasn't slurred, the investigating officer testified.

But after newly sworn-in Baltimore County police officer Warren W. McNicholas Jr. celebrated his new job status with two fellow rookies last Oct. 7, this was the result: One 23-year-old policeman dead and another injured after the car in which they were riding careered off a road in Fullerton and sheared off a utility pole.

McNicholas' blood-alcohol concentration measured .15 percent after the accident. A 160-pound man is said to reach .10 after five drinks in an hour. No doubt McNicholas, 25, was schooled in the effects of alcohol after recently attending a dozen hours of classes on that very subject at the police academy. And yet according to testimony, he believed he was able to drive after visiting three bars.

How easy is it, then, for a person with little training about alcohol to believe he or she can handle drinks past the point of inebriation? That's the best reason for Maryland to finally pass "illegal per se" drunken driving legislation that has been bottled up in Annapolis for years. It would provide one more solid reason for someone to avoid driving after drinking.

With a per se law, if a motorist's blood-alcohol is measured at .10, he or she is considered drunk. Under current Maryland law, other factors enter into play, such as whether the driver was weaving or had slurred speech and the driver's physical size -- all fertile loopholes for trial lawyers to exploit. With a per se law, defense attorneys could still seek to prove the test was improperly administered, but the scientifically accepted level of intoxication -- .10 -- would be considered absolute evidence. The legislation has the support of staff from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Glendening administration.

Maryland currently stands as one of only four states in the country without a per se drunken driving law. In fact, 11 states have tougher per se laws than the one proposed for Maryland and use .08 as the standard for intoxication.

As for legislators who have fought this before with the argument that Maryland has made progress against drunken driving without this measure, the toll of 200 people who still die yearly from alcohol-related accidents leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Passage of this law might help to keep people from hearing a little voice that convinces them they can drive after several drinks. That's not science speaking. It's the liquor talking.

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