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Bill would lower level of blood alcohol for DWI; Administration says lives would be saved


The Glendening administration urged legislators yesterday to approve a bill that would make it easier to convict motorists of driving while intoxicated, contending the measure would save 23 lives and 1,300 injuries in Maryland each year.

Backed by elected officials, anti-drunken driving activists, police officers and victims' relatives, the administration called on the General Assembly to lower the blood-alcohol level for a DWI conviction from 0.10 to 0.08.

"It's not often that we can say with certainty that passing a piece of legislation will save lives," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said at an Annapolis news conference. "This one will."

The measure has been defeated in the past two General Assembly sessions, but Townsend said that Gov. Parris N. Glendening is ready to use the power of his office to pass the bill this year.

"I believe he's prepared to do what must be done to get this passed," Townsend said.

Proponents of the law noted studies showing decreases in fatalities and injuries from alcohol-related accidents in several of the 16 states -- plus the District of Columbia -- that have adopted the 0.08 standard.

"At 0.08 blood-alcohol content, a driver is 11 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a driver who is completely sober," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.

The measure faces opposition from liquor and restaurant interests, which contend that the legislation would ensnare "social drinkers" while doing little to curb chronic drunks who register more than 0.10 on Breathalyzer tests.

"There has been no consistent evidence that 0.08 saves lives," said Thomas B. Stone Jr., a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

A similar bill failed last year when the House Judiciary Committee voted 11-10 to kill it. But legislators said heavy turnover on the committee after the November election makes the outcome this year hard to predict. The measure also faces uncertain prospects in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Under current law, a blood-alcohol reading of 0.10 is considered proof that a motorist was driving while intoxicated, which carries a maximum potential sentence of a year in jail for a first offense.

Drivers with readings of 0.07 can be convicted of driving under the influence, for which the maximum sentence is two months.

The legislation, supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, would leave the level for the lesser offense at 0.07. The coalition has dropped last year's proposal to lower the level for conviction for driving under the influence to 0.06.

Brandy Anderson, director of state legislative affairs for the national MADD organization, sought to allay fears that passage of the 0.08 bill would encourage anti-drunken driving activists to seek a lower level later.

"We would not get behind a lower blood alcohol content level without abundant and strong research to prove that it needs to be lower," Anderson said. "And , we don't have that research."

Townsend said she would not rule out seeking a lower standard at some point.

The 0.08 legislation picked up support from an unlikely source -- Bethesda tavern owner Lewie Bloom, who discounted industry fears that it would lead to a decrease in alcohol consumption.

Bloom said the legislation would encourage customers to choose a designated driver. He said he has noticed that with a designated driver in the group, other patrons drink more freely.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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