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How to reduce drunk driving

People who have never been tested on a Breathalyzer are often surprised by just how intoxicated a person has to be to register a blood alcohol concentration of .08. It is enough to slur speech, impair vision, and dangerously alter perception and reaction time. You are, in a word, drunk and under no circumstances should be driving.

It's an important point to understand because under current Maryland law, there's a distinction made between drunk drivers who test at .08 to .14 and those who test at .15 or above. It is only first-time offenders in this latter group — call them the extreme drunk drivers — who, if found guilty, must have an ignition interlock device installed in their cars (unless they had a child passenger in the vehicle at the time or are under age 21).

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That's a mistake. Ignition interlocks, devices that prevent a driver from starting a vehicle if alcohol is detected on his or her breath, are highly effective and save lives. Time and time again, states that expand their use reduce the number of drunk driving incidents and, most importantly, lower the number of drunk driving fatalities.

In 2013, 141 people were killed in crashes caused by drunk drivers in Maryland, which is more than one for every mile of Interstate 95 across the state. About one-third of those crashes were caused by drivers with a BAC that tested between .08 and .14.

The results of drunk driving arrests are even more instructive. Of the roughly 14,000 people who were tested for DUI by police officers last year in Maryland, more of the suspects registered a BAC of between .08 and .14 than .15 or above — a total of 5,902 compared to 5,435.

This year, the General Assembly has a chance to close this loophole and expand the use of ignition interlock devices. Legislation introduced by two Montgomery County lawmakers, Sen. Jamie Raskin in the Senate and Del. Ben Kramer in the House, would mandate ignition interlocks for all first-time DUI offenders for at least six months.

A lot of states have taken similar actions in recent years. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 24 states now mandate ignition interlocks for first-time offenders in a similar manner. New Jersey is poised to become the 25th if Gov. Chris Christie signs legislation approved by the state's legislature earlier this month.

The measure is not only a top legislative priority for MADD, it's supported by insurance companies, highway safety advocates and the American Automobile Association. And public opinion surveys show most drivers favor ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers by a wide margin (3-to-1 in a 2012 survey by AAA).

So what's holding it back? In Maryland, the biggest obstacle to any strengthening of drunk driving laws has generally been the House Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. of Prince George's County, a criminal defense attorney. But the state has made progress in expanding use of ignition interlocks over the last half-decade despite that impediment, most recently by adding the "minor child in the car" provision last year. The result has been a steady increase in the use of the devices (up 38 percent to 11,101 participants in the program in fiscal 2014 compared to 8,049 four years earlier) and a corresponding decline in traffic fatalities.

But Maryland can't be satisfied with the status quo. States that have required interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers have seen the most dramatic safety improvements of all — declines in drunk driving deaths of 45 percent in Arizona, 35 percent in West Virginia, 30 percent in Oregon, 28 percent in Alaska and on and on.

Maryland ought to be at the vanguard of highway safety instead of in the slow lane. Drunk drivers aren't just killing themselves; the collisions they cause cost many innocent lives as well. How lawmakers can possibly view the inconvenience or cost of an interlock to an offender as somehow trumping the lives lost to drunk drivers is difficult to fathom. Studies show most "first offenders" are not really first offenders at all but more like "finally caught in the act drunk drivers" and may have driven drunk dozens of times before they were arrested for the first time. In mandating interlocks, legislators would be doing them a favor, potentially saving their lives, the lives of their loved ones and those of countless innocent people who deserve this valuable protection.

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