Threatened with the loss of millions of dollars in federal aid, a House of Delegates committee voted yesterday to impose a stricter standard for determining when a motorist is considered drunk, a key first step toward expected General Assembly passage of the legislation.
The measure, which passed the Judiciary Committee 16-5, would lower the blood-alcohol level needed to convict someone of the most serious drunken-driving offense from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent.
"This is a much tougher statement to the public and to those who would drink and drive," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who helped fashion the final version of the bill.
The vote by a committee that has long been a graveyard for drunken-driving bills was grudging. Some members complained that they had little choice, given that states that don't adopt the new standard will lose federal transportation funding.
After nearly three hours of sometimes pointed debate over two days, several committee members who had opposed the tougher standard in previous years voted for the bill to avoid losing the federal aid.
"I think we all agree that none of us would be here if it weren't for the money," said Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Baltimore County Republican who voted against the measure. "We've killed this bill many times."
The measure must be passed by the full House of Delegates and Senate before it becomes law, but key legislators have predicted that will happen.
A federal law that went into effect last year requires states to adopt the 0.08 percent standard or lose millions of dollars in federal payments for roads and other projects. Maryland would lose $54 million by 2007 if it didn't pass the tougher law by then.
Under federal law, states that move quickly to toughen their drunken-driving law qualify for "incentive" transportation grants of roughly $2 million a year. The Judiciary Committee would make Maryland's law effective Sept. 30, just in time to qualify for such a payment.
As it amended the bill, the committee made an alteration that might confuse the public, changing the name of the most serious drunken-driving offense from "driving while intoxicated" to "driving under the influence."
The current charge of "driving under the influence," the less-serious offense under Maryland's two-tier enforcement system, would be renamed "driving while impaired."
The threshold to convict a driver on the lesser charge would be unchanged at a blood-alcohol level of 0.07 percent.
Montague, who proposed the change in terminology, said it was a response to testimony from toxicology experts who told the committee that it was a stretch to say drivers with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent were "intoxicated."
"The justification is that you don't want to perpetuate a lie on the public," Montague said.
Some lawmakers predicted that the change in terms would cause misunderstanding among people used to such terms such as DUI and DWI.
"It's very clear to me that this proposal will cause great confusion in the public's eye," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican who voted against the bill. "I think it's a bad, bad idea."
Supporters said the bill would give police and prosecutors a better chance of convicting drivers whose blood-alcohol level tests at 0.08 percent or 0.09 percent.
Last year, 1,541 drivers tested at those levels, according to Maryland State Police statistics. Nearly 14,000 drivers tested at 0.10 percent or higher.
According to figures compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a 170-pound man would have to consume four 12-ounce beers in an hour on an empty stomach to reach the 0.08 percent level.
Eric Gally, a lobbyist for MADD, said the group was pleased by the committee's approval of the bill but that the change in the names of the two driving offenses would force his group to take steps to educate the public.
"We've said all along we don't care what you call it," Gally said. "This will work perfectly fine."
Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Senate committee handling the drunken-driving bill, said last week that he is confident his panel will approve the 0.08 percent standard because of the federal requirement.
It is unclear whether the Senate committee will go along with the new names for drunken-driving offenses.