State lawmakers and highway safety advocates are hoping that news of an increase in deaths related to drunken driving in Maryland can boost their efforts to pass more severe penalties next year.
Fatal crashes involving drivers with blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 percent or higher rose 12 percent in Maryland last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported. The state had 209 such fatalities last year, up from 187 in 2003.
The increase has safety advocates and state legislators scrambling to come up with new laws.
"Over the last decade or more, the state of Maryland has been stuck in neutral, riding on a complacent plateau in the war on drunk driving, and now it's very clear that drunk drivers have caught up with us," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Bronrott and other state policymakers said more severe penalties would be one option for combating drunken driving during the next legislative session.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, and vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said state lawmakers will "give serious consideration to bills that would deter people from drinking and driving."
State lawmakers have taken steps to combat drunken driving in recent years, and highway safety advocates hope the new statistics will lead to tougher penalties for repeat offenders, teenagers who drink and drive, and violators with high blood-alcohol levels.
In 2002, a state law banning open alcohol containers in the driver or passenger areas of vehicles went into effect. The violation is punishable by a $25 fine.
Another state law went into effect that year that makes it a felony to flee a crash that causes death or serious bodily injury. Previously, the violation was a misdemeanor, which encouraged drunken drivers to flee from accidents without calling for medical assistance for crash victims. In some cases, the extra time enabled them to sober up before they were arrested.
In 2001, the state's standard for blood-alcohol level was lowered from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent after years of arguing by highway safety advocates.
During the next legislative session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans to reintroduce an initiative that would revoke for three years the license of a driver younger than 21 who is convicted of an offense involving drunken or drugged driving, said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.
"Governor Ehrlich is absolutely committed in getting drunk drivers off the roads and making travel on our roads as safe as possible," Fawell said.
State Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. of Prince George's County has long supported the ignition interlock, a device that checks sobriety before a vehicle will start.
In the next legislative session, he said, he plans to reintroduce legislation that would allow judges to force those convicted of drunken driving to use interlocks for up to three years.
"People have to go to work, go to treatment, and they can do those things with interlock," Giannetti said.
Giannetti conceded that the device is not foolproof. A friend or relative of the offender who is sober could blow into the device, which would allow the offender to start the car.
Still, he said, he feels confident about the device, which has been improved so that drivers are required to blow into it every few minutes once the car is started.
Giannetti said he would also encourage parents to voluntarily install interlocks in their teenagers' cars.
Lawmakers are also considering a law that would impose tougher penalties on drivers based on the amount of alcohol in their systems. The higher the alcohol level, the tougher the penalty would be.
"It's very hard to figure out which bills would make a difference, because you have to see whether the 12 percent increase is an anomaly or a trend," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I don't think anything by itself would make a 12 percent change."
All must 'pitch in'
Highway safety advocates and other lawmakers agree.
Tougher laws are just one way to combat drunken driving, said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat.
"All levels of government have to pitch in," she said, and the judicial and legislative branches, along with law enforcement agencies, have to take on the challenge.
"I feel this new report is a signal that something is not right, and we have to catch that signal and do something about it or we will have more people dying on our streets," she said.
Safety advocates said ad campaigns and tough enforcement have proved effective. They point to the ad campaign that accompanied Checkpoint Strikeforce, a statewide program to weed out drunken drivers by using sobriety checks at random locations.
The five-month program will run through the end of the year. The checkpoints are named for victims killed by drunken drivers.
Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman, said enforcement efforts have been helped by calls from motorists who use their cell phones to call #77, the line created to report erratic drivers.
"Keep reporting them and we can reach the goal of zero [drunken drivers], but we have to be realistic -- some people just don't get the message," Rouse said.
Here are some of the laws proposed to counter drunken driving:
Revoke licenses of motorists under age 21 if they are convicted for using alcohol or drugs. The revocation could last for up to three years or until they turn 21.
Empower judges to force offenders to use ignition interlocks on their vehicles. The interlock requires the offender to blow into a breathalyzer to start the vehicle and keep it going.
Impose a graduated penalty based on the level of alcohol in the drunken driver's system. The higher the alcohol level, the higher the penalty.