For years, advocates have come before the Judiciary Committee in Maryland's House of Delegates to tell the tragic stories of Marylanders who have been injured or killed by drunk drivers, and for years their efforts have had the same result: Legislation to require broad use of ignition interlock devices by drunk drivers has been left to die a quiet death in the drawer of Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. Last week, that finally changed. Thanks to a confluence of factors — not the least of them being a push from House Speaker Michael E. Busch — Mr. Vallario allowed a vote, and the bill is headed to the House floor. The committee did amend the bill in ways that weaken it slightly, and we hope that lawmakers will move the legislation back closer to its original form, but it nonetheless represents an opportunity to save scores of lives in Maryland every year.
The current version of the bill is called "Noah's Law" in honor of Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, who died late last year from injuries sustained when he was struck by an admitted drunken driver. Leotta, a Montgomery County native described by friends and colleagues as energetic and engaging, had volunteered for drunk driving patrol duty. On Dec. 3, he pulled over a motorist on Rockville Pike, stopping in the right lane with his lights flashing and his car angled to help shield him from oncoming cars. As he walked back to his cruiser, he was exposed briefly to traffic, and it was at just that moment, police say, that a Honda CR-V driven by Luis Gustavo Reluzco struck his car then him, causing severe head injuries. He died a week later. He was 24 years old.
Police say Mr. Reluzco, who had two previous drunk driving arrests on his record, had been drinking at a nearby Hooters for hours. He was still at the scene and behind the wheel of his car when officers arrived, and police say he refused to attempt some field sobriety tests, telling officers he couldn't do them because he had had too much to drink. Police say he had also been smoking marijuana. He refused a breath test at the scene but because of the injuries Leotta sustained, he was required to provide a blood sample. Mr. Reluzco's attorney later acknowledged that his client had been driving while over the legal limit. He now faces charges of vehicular manslaughter.
Just as the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo in December of 2014 at the hands of a drunk driver on Roland Avenue galvanized public opinion in Baltimore, so too has Leotta's death brought new urgency to the effort in Montgomery County. More than half of the House — Republicans and Democrats alike — agreed to co-sponsor the measure this year, with more adding their names as the bill moved through Judiciary.
The reason for the broad support is not just sentimentality. It's that ignition interlock is clearly effective at preventing more tragedies like those. Twenty-five other states now require the use of interlock for all drunk driving first offenders, and the results have been profound. Drunk driving fatalities in Arizona dropped 45 percent after a similar law went into effect there, and that's no anomaly. Similar declines have been seen in state after state. Even the limited interlock program Maryland runs now — the devices are only required for those whose blood alcohol level is .15 percent, or nearly twice the legal limit — has kept thousands of drunk drivers off the roads. In 2015 alone, participants were stopped from driving more than 27,000 times because the devices detected alcohol, and in 4,000 of those instances, the drivers were legally drunk. Gov. Larry Hogan's administration has taken some steps to try to encourage more drivers to voluntarily enroll in the program, but nothing would boost participation like this law.
In its original form, this bill included longer mandatory periods of interlock use for those who refused breath tests, but that provision was watered down in the Judiciary Committee. Backers of the legislation are trying now to find a compromise on that point, and we hope they do. There should be no loophole that encourages people to refuse the test.
But the most important thing is for the full House to vote in support of this measure and send it to the Senate, which has long been supportive of similar legislation. It would be difficult to think of a punishment that is more closely tailored to the crime. Mandatory interlock doesn't stop those subjected to it from getting to work or doctor's appointments or taking their kids to school. It just stops them from doing it while drunk, and there is no question that would make the rest of us safer.