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MADD-backed DWI bill gets some competition; Foes' look-alike measure omits stiffer penalties


Opponents of a Mothers Against Drunk Driving-backed bill to lower the blood-alcohol level required for a charge of driving while intoxicated are pushing a look-alike measure that omits the stiffer penalties of the original legislation.

The MADD-backed bill would lower the standard for a DWI charge to 0.08 from the current 0.10. Drivers who test at 0.08 or 0.09 would be subject to the state's current DWI penalties -- a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and 12 points against their driver's license.

The opponents' bill, introduced this week by Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, would technically meet the standards of last year's federal Transportation Efficiency Act by changing the standard for a DWI conviction to 0.08.

However, the punishment for a reading of 0.08 or 0.09 would remain unchanged from the current penalty for the lesser charge of driving under the influence (DUI) -- a maximum of 60 days, a $500 fine and eight points.

The Dembrow bill could provide political cover for legislators who are wary about imposing tougher penalties on drivers who face the lesser charge -- a move opposed by the influential restaurant industry.

"We changed the U to a W. That puts us into technical compliance with the federal law," said Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat. Compliance with that law would bring the state an extra $2 million in highway funds this year.

The Dembrow bill drew the immediate opposition of MADD and its allies. Democratic Del. Sharon Grosfeld of Montgomery, a co-sponsor of the original MADD-backed bill, called the new legislation an "end run" around federal rules tying highway funds to the lower standard.

Dembrow's bill also varies from the MADD-backed legislation by setting up a third tier of punishment for drivers who test at much higher blood-alcohol levels. Under his bill, a motorist with a blood-alcohol level of 0.25 or above would be subject to a two-year jail term and a $2,000 fine. Both bills leave intact the DUI charge and penalties for a reading of 0.07.

The Dembrow bill has the support of two influential Baltimore Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, where legislation similar to the MADD bill died last year. Dels. Ann Marie Doory and Kenneth C. Montague signed on as co-sponsors.

Dembrow said he does not expect his bill to earn cheers from supporters of the original bill, which has the strong backing of the Glendening administration.

"We expect it to be controversial, but it is a very considered and reasonable and stiffer approach to drunk driving," Dembrow said. He said his bill puts its emphasis on curbing "truly drunk drivers," not those who have had a few glasses of wine.

Grosfeld said stiffer penalties are needed to deter motorists from driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08. State officials estimate that a 170-pound man would have to drink four or more drinks in an hour on an empty stomach to reach that level.

In Annapolis

Highlights in Annapolis today:

Senate meets. 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets. 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing on HB 143, the Glendening administration's proposed $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase. 1: 30 p.m. Room 100, Senate office building.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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