March 25, 2011

Dueling ignition interlock bills pass both chambers

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Two different bills that expand the ignition interlock program to keep drunk drivers off the road passed both the Senate and the House of Delegates on Thursday morning, setting the stage for an end-of-session showdown.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County, passed unanimously with no opposition or discussion on Thursday.

The House bill, which passed on a 118-17 vote, got vehement opposition from Del. Benjamin Kramer, D-Montgomery County. Kramer wished that his chamber’s bill, sponsored by Del. Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s County, was more like the Senate version.

“With all due respect, I wish this was a good bill,” Kramer said.

Ignition interlocks, which have been used in Maryland for years, are placed on some drunk drivers’ vehicles. A driver with an interlock device needs to pass a breath analysis test before his or her vehicle will start. According to the Motor Vehicle Administration, there are about 8,000 drivers enrolled in the ignition interlock program each year.

The Senate bill requires that all people who are convicted of drunk driving have interlock devices installed on their vehicles, even if they are first-time offenders. First-time offenders have to use the devices for six months, while repeat offenders must use them for one to three years. They would not be allowed to drive vehicles that don’t have the devices, unless given approval by the court or the MVA to do so for employment-related purposes.

The House bill also expands the program, but it is not as stringent. Drivers convicted of drunk driving would have the interlock devices placed on their vehicles if they have blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.15 or higher – about twice the legal limit. They can also be put into the program if they have had a drunk driving conviction in the previous five years, are younger than 21, or are ordered to by a judge. If someone fails to participate in the program, his or her license will be suspended for a year.

Kramer said that he wants to crack down on drunk drivers, but the House bill does not go far enough. He listed several groups who also oppose it, including the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, the Maryland medical society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Maryland Impaired Driving Coalition, the Maryland State Police, AAA Mid-Atlantic, and the Maryland Department of Transportation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Kramer said, is “adamantly opposed” to the legislation because it is not stringent enough.

Meanwhile, Kramer listed two groups that support the House bill: the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association and the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, two trade associations representing businesses selling alcohol.

“If that doesn’t throw up red flags, I don’t know what does,” Kramer said.

In response, Vallario said that Kramer left out one group that supported the bill: All of the members of the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

Committee vice-chair Del. Kathleen Dumais, D- Montgomery County, added that the difference between the bills is purely philosophical. The Senate bill takes a “one size fits all” approach, while the House bill adapts to different situations. Those philosophical differences are things that both chambers are “going to have to talk about,” she said.