- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend promoted a series of proposals yesterday to crack down on drunken driving and send a message to offenders that "if you think you can tempt fate, we're going to get you."
The measures would stiffen penalties for repeat offenders, prohibit passengers from having open alcohol containers in most vehicles, and encourage pulled-over offenders to take breath tests.
Speaking to a gathering that included the widow of Sgt. John Platt, who was killed in October 2000 when a drunken driver broadsided the Baltimore officer's police car, Mrs. Townsend described deaths caused by drunken drivers as a preventable, but "devastating attack" on innocent people.
She also mentioned Baltimore County police Sgt. Mark Parry, who died last month after being hit by a drunken driver.
"It's hard to be in Maryland without knowing someone who has been hurt or killed by drunken driving," Mrs. Townsend said. After passing the legislation, "we will be able to look the families in the eye and say we have made a difference in the state."
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany Democrat, joined Mrs. Townsend, saying "there has to be zero tolerance" for drunken drivers.
The measures are backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other safety groups, and come one year after lawmakers lowered the drunken-driving standard in the state from a blood-alcohol content of .10 to .08 and passed a law permitting prosecutors to tell the court when defendants refuse to take the roadside breath test.
This year's bills target several aspects of drunken driving, including a provision making it illegal for a passenger to have an open container of alcohol. There are laws against open containers in 34 states and the District, but not in Virginia or West Virginia.
The bill includes exemptions for passengers in recreational vehicles, motor homes, buses and limousines.
Another bill would stiffen penalties for repeat drunken drivers, upping the mandatory minimum sentence for a second offense within five years from two days of jail time or 80 hours of community service to five days of jail time or 30 days of community service. It also mandates a one-year license suspension, with no exemptions for employment hardships.
A third bill increases penalties for "super drunks," who have a blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher. Currently, there is no distinction between .08 and higher.
That bill also would penalize drivers who refuse to take a blood-alcohol test by suspending their license for one year. Lawmakers say many seasoned drunken drivers turn down the test, preferring to challenge the word of the arresting officers in court.
"We're closing a major loophole here," said Delegate Mark K. Shriver, Montgomery County Democrat.
Nicholas Manis, lobbyist for the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, said the organization backs distinguishing penalties for higher BACs and increasing penalties for repeat offenders.
But he said distinctions also should be made there between someone "who blows a .08 today and 4 years later blows another .08" and someone who has less time in between offenses and higher blood-alcohol levels.
The group has not taken a stand on the open-container law, Mr. Manis said.
Like last year, there are federal funds at stake in passing the legislation $7 million this year and $14 million in 2003.
Of the 588 highway deaths in Maryland in 2000, 225 were alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Statistics for 2001 are not yet available.


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