Assembly approves 65 mph


Maryland motorists will soon be able to drive 65 mph legally on some rural highways under legislation given final approval yesterday by the General Assembly.

The decision was one of many lawmakers made in a hectic day in Annapolis as the 90-day session rushed toward its final hours tomorrow night. In other action, legislators approved a measure that would lower closing costs for first-time homebuyers, but raise them slightly for others.

Lawmakers also cracked down on drunken drivers with a measure that would make a blood-alcohol test result of 0.10 percent absolute proof of drunken driving. A bill aimed at making car insurance more affordable and more widely available to drivers in Baltimore also was approved.

Under the speed limit bill, the State Highway Administration would be authorized to raise the limit to 65 mph on 271 miles of state-maintained highways, most of them interstates.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed the higher speed limit in early January and has made clear that he will sign the bill. State highway officials are expected to raise the limit along most, if not all, of the eligible highways by early July.

The bill also would raise the penalty for excessive speeding on those roads. Scofflaws caught driving 85 mph or more in a 65-mph zone would be assessed five points on their driver's licenses. That is two more points than a driver would face for going 20 to 29 mph above the speed limit anywhere else.

Some lawmakers complained that the penalty was not great enough. A driver caught going 84 mph in a 65-mph zone would be liable only for the two-point penalty.

"I think that's pretty fast driving," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat. "I think going 84 mph is pretty dangerous."

Congested roads such as the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 95 between Washington and Baltimore are not subject to the higher limit. Eligible highways include I-97 in Anne Arundel County, I-83 north of Shawan Road in Baltimore County and I-68 through Western Maryland.

Maryland is one of only eight states that have not permitted driving 65 mph since the 55-mph law was imposed 20 years ago.

Safety advocates have complained that the higher speed limit would cost lives. State traffic experts argued that motorists already drive 65 mph because it is a comfortable speed for most drivers.

Nevertheless, state highway officials had sought some added safety protections to go with the bill. The original bill called for a ban on radar detectors and higher fines for speeding in 65-mph zones, but both provisions were removed by lawmakers.

The bill's passage was considered an easy victory for Mr. Glendening. The measure has been approved by the General Assembly before, but was vetoed by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Mr. Glendening also plans to sign the closing-costs legislation, aides said yesterday.

"This will make a home much more affordable for first-time homebuyers in this state," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, during a short debate yesterday.

Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's Democrat, said the measure would also boost economic development.

Business leaders contend that the state's closing costs -- ranked among the highest in the nation -- make it difficult to attract out-of-state companies. The cost of closing on a $150,000 house in Baltimore County is nearly twice the cost of closing in Arlington, Va., according to an analysis by The Sun.

Backfire predicted

Under the legislation, a first-time buyer of a $150,000 home in Baltimore County could save $2,720 in closing costs and deferred property tax payments, according to the state Department of Fiscal Services. In Baltimore City, where property taxes are higher, first-time buyers could end up paying $3,581 less than under current law.

Opponents, however, argue that the plan will backfire because some of the cost savings to first-time homebuyers will be absorbed by home sellers. They now would be expected to pay local transfer and recordation taxes for the buyer -- which can amount to several thousand dollars -- unless they strike a deal otherwise.

Del. Victoria L. Schade argued that homeowners would either refuse to sell to first-time buyers or factor the added closing costs into the asking price. "People will realize a few years from now that they made a mistake," said Ms. Schade, an Anne Arundel Republican.

Still, proponents say that reducing the amount of money first-time buyers must spend at settlement would make it easier to buy a home.

What most galls buyers and real estate agents is that Maryland requires a large advance payment on property taxes and, unlike some states, levies a half-percent transfer tax on all transactions.

Under the so-called "per se" blood-alcohol law passed yesterday, attorneys no longer could use their clients' successful performance on field sobriety tests to prove that they weren't drunk.

Proponents argue that habitual drinkers can successfully pass such tests after drinking more than a six-pack of beer.

The bill's opponents fear that it would create a system of trial by machine, in which faulty Breathalyzer tests would inevitably brand innocent people as guilty.

Mr. Glendening has not said whether he will sign the measure.

Without debate, the House gave final approval to the governor's effort to reform automobile insurance and bring down the city's sky-high rates.

The legislation requires major insurance companies -- the 30 or so top-selling firms -- to file annual reports with the state insurance commissioner demonstrating that they market and make available insurance in the city in the same manner that they treat the rest of the state.

Administration officials claim Maryland could become the first state in the nation to impose such a marketing requirement on companies.

Proponents expect the measure to enhance competition within the city, where drivers often pay premiums two or three times greater than their suburban counterparts. The governor's proposal had originally set sales quotas on companies, but legislators balked at that requirement.

The legislation also would consolidate the elements within state government that investigate insurance fraud into one unit, financed with $2 million to be collected annually in fees from insurers.

It also would permit companies to set rates without approval beforehand from the insurance commissioner. Companies had wanted the so-called "competitive rating" system to give them greater flexibility in setting rates.

Administration officials insist the proposal would not cause higher rates for suburban and rural drivers.

But insurance industry officials also insist that the measure would not bring down insurance premiums because it would not affect the culprit behind the high rates -- the amount of money paid out in claims on behalf of city policyholders. Insurers face more frequent accidents in the city, a higher rate of attorney involvement in accident claims and more car theft and vandalism.

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