By Chris Swonger and Rich Leotta
Alcohol-impaired drivers killed 10,265 people across the nation in 2015. Among those lost was Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta. Just 24 years old, he was killed by the exact crime he was trying to protect us from—struck by a driver under the influence during a traffic stop of a suspected impaired driver.
The incident was yet another tragic wake-up call about the need for improved policies to combat alcohol-impaired driving. Fortunately, our state’s leaders heard that call loud and clear. In 2016, Maryland passed Noah’s Law to mandate the use of ignition interlocks—better known as breathalyzers for motor vehicles—to be installed in cars and trucks owned or operated by any convicted DUI offender.
Ignition interlocks are a powerful tool against drunk driving because they prevent a DUI offender from driving drunk. Requiring DUI offenders to install an ignition interlock is associated with a 15 percent reduction in the rate of alcohol-involved crash deaths and 34 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws mandating that all DUI offenders install ignition interlocks on their vehicles for a period of time to protect public safety and help prevent repeat DUI offenses.
Unfortunately, Noah’s Law as originally enacted contains a dangerous loophole in its ignition interlock mandate. Many first-time DUI offenders in Maryland are not sentenced to install an ignition interlock because they are granted probation before judgment (PBJ).
Here’s the problem: a first-time arrest for DUI doesn’t mean it’s the first time someone drove drunk. Driving while impaired is often a long-established habit for these individuals. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that drivers take an average of 80 vehicle trips under the influence before receiving their first DUI arrest.
What’s more, many first-time offenders meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. Without treatment—and during any relapse—these individuals are a potential drunk driving danger. The public must be protected.
That’s the purpose behind SB 672 and its companion bill HB 749. The legislation, recently debated in Annapolis, would close the Noah’s Law loophole and expand ignition interlock requirements to include first-time offenders who receive probation before judgment, too.
A wide variety of organizations stand behind these bills. Among them are Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, Responsibility.org, and members of the beverage alcohol industry who only want to see their products enjoyed safely and responsibly. Everyone who looks forward to the day when not a single person perishes in an alcohol-involved traffic crash should support SB 672 and HB 749.
Maryland has an opportunity to make our roads the safest in the country. By passing these important pieces of legislation, our policymakers can establish the nation’s best ignition interlock program and take us another step toward eliminating the scourge of drunk driving once and for all.