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3 laws target drunken driving


Maryland is cracking down harder on drinking and driving with a pair of laws that go into effect today -- one that makes it illegal to have open alcohol containers in vehicles and another that establishes tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers.

A third law aimed at drunken drivers that will take effect tomorrow makes it a felony for any driver to flee the scene of an accident in which someone is seriously injured or killed.

"Crossing a street or driving down a highway should not be a death-defying act," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored one of the laws during this year's General Assembly session. "These laws are about deterring dangerous driving and saving lives."

The three laws are the latest in a series of measures passed by the General Assembly in recent years aimed at toughening Maryland's efforts to curb drunken driving. They were signed into law during the spring by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"It's taken many years to pass the open-container law in Maryland," said Del. Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery Democrat. "It was a long, hard-fought battle."

Montgomery politicians, state legislators, drunken-driving opponents and law enforcement officials gathered last week at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad headquarters to mark the laws taking effect.

The three laws:

Create a civil penalty for carrying an open alcoholic beverage -- any container with a broken seal -- in the driver or passenger area of a vehicle, punishable by a $25 fine. Maryland stood to lose federal highway funding if lawmakers did not approve an acceptable form of the law this year.

Make it a felony to flee a crash that causes death or serious bodily injury. It is a misdemeanor, and the law's supporters say the lesser penalty gives drunken drivers incentive to flee accidents without calling for medical assistance so they can sober up before police catch up with them.

Toughen the penalty for people convicted of a second drunken-driving offense within a five-year period. Such drivers will face a mandatory minimum penalty of five days in jail or 30 days of community service and a one-year suspension of their driver's licenses. After regaining their licenses, drivers would be required to use an ignition interlock -- a device that checks sobriety before a vehicle will start -- for three months to a year.

Monique Glover, whose 7-year-old daughter Brijae D. Harris was killed in December by a hit-and-run driver while she walked to school in Northeast Baltimore, praised the laws. Her daughter's death helped push the felony hit-and-run law through the legislature.

"I'm so honored the law was changed," Glover said, tears running down her face. "My daughter's life wasn't in vain."

Many of the lawmakers at last week's event praised Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for making tougher drunken-driving legislation one of her top priorities during recent Assembly sessions.

"The lieutenant governor stood with us on all these bills," said Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery Democrat who won the state Senate primary this month and is unopposed in the general election. "That was critical to impressing the leadership of the House and the Senate that these were priorities."

Law enforcement officials warn that they plan to increase education and enforcement as the laws take effect -- much as they have done in past years. When the blood-alcohol limit for serious drunken-driving offenses was lowered from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent last year, state officials launched a major advertising campaign.

"You're about to see drunken-driving enforcement like you've never seen before," said Maryland State Police Lt. Col. William Arrington.

Advocates of stronger laws say they are looking at additional measures for next year's Assembly session.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said two priorities will be creating a tougher penalty for aggressive drivers who kill people in accidents and requiring suspected drunken drivers to submit to breath tests.

A third bill likely to be pushed would call for increased penalties for drunken drivers with particularly high blood-alcohol levels, said Kurt Erickson, executive director of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

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