Coast to coast, there's a new campaign against the drunken driver

Stiffer penalties for those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol are being considered in legislative chambers from coast to coast. In Maryland alone, 80 measures aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the drinking driver problem have been filed.

These include proposals to raise from 18 to 19 the legal minimum drinking age , lower the alcohol level in a motorist's blood for drunkenness, make it easier to convict drunken drivers, and provide stiffer penalties for motorists refusing to take the so-called breathalyzer test.

While passage of none of these measures is certain, support for them appears to be building with a strong push from citizen groups like Mothers Against Drunken Drivers.

Since it first took to the political warpath last summer here and in California, that organization has grown considerably and could become the catalyst for a wave of legislation to crack down on motorists under the influence of alcohol.

While special retraining programs for those convicted of drunken driving seem likely to continue, highway safety officials in most states appear increasingly skeptical as to how effective this approach may be toward ridding the highways of repeat offenders.

"The greatest deterrent to drunk driving is the threat of loss of license," contends John Moulden of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He concedes, however, that thus far programs along these lines generally have not been particularly effective. Arrests do not net a significant portion of drunken drivers on the road.

In the past two years at least two states --Washington and Wyoming -- have passed laws providing mandatory one-day jail sentences for drunken driving convictions.

Similar legislation has been filed in several other states, including New Hampshire, where prospects for passage appear bright.

This would bring to 10 the number of states with such penalties.But only three of these --Arizona, Ohio, and Washington -- provide punishment for first offenders and, except for the latter state, utilization has been spotty.

The other mandatory sentencing states --California, Colorado, Nevada, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming -- impose this penalty only on repeat offenders. The Wyoming statute similarly covered first offenders, but that penalty was repealed earlier this year because lawmakers were concerned about the threat of mounting jury-trial demands.

Whether other states mandate short-term jailings for those convicted of drunken driving could depend on the law in Washington State, where the single-day sentence has resulted in overcrowding in some jails as well as a heavy backlog of jury trials.

Officials there say the law is achieving its intent -- an appreciable reduction in road accidents, especially liquor-related ones.

Thus far, 2,900 drunken drivers in Washington have been convicted under the mandatory-sentence law, which has been on the books just over a year. Because of jail crowding, however, many of those convicted have yet to spend time behind bars.

Some advocates of tougher drunken driver curbs, like Mr. Moulden, are skeptical as to how effective the mandatory sentence approach can be, noting that it leads to judges letting offenders off on lesser convictions and tends to crowd court dockets with jury trials.

Federal officials also favor making it easier to gain drunken driving convictions by limiting essential evidence to results of a breathalyzer test showing the arrested motorist had at least a 0.10 percent alcohol level in his blood.

On the congressional front, Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland and Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island are preparing legislation to impose stiffer measures, including a mandatory 10-day public service sentence for first convictions. For repeat offenders the penalty would be another 10 days of public service work or 10 days in jail.

Under this proposal, due to be filled in early March, states failing to meet these standards would run the risk of losing federal highway funding. It also would require better state record-keeping on drunken driver arrests and convictions. Currently, in the absence of such enforced regulations, it is impossible to know how many liquor-related traffic fatalities there were last year or during any other previous 12-month period.

Based on latest Federal Bureau of Investigation figures, 1.3 million drunken driving arrests were made nationwide last year. Drunken driver-involved traffic accidents resulted in an estimated 23,000 deaths.

Concerned officials contend that the drunken driver problem is understated because police officers tend not to report all incidents, sometimes for political reasons.

In recent years, several states have been moving in the direction of voluntary roadside tests, where drivers stopped for suspicion of intoxication agree to a less complex check of the alcohol level in their systems.

This procedure has been instituted either on a permanent basis or for an experimental period in the District of Columbia, in Puerto Rico, and in 17 states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming,

Because of the difficulty in getting drunken driving convictions from sometimes sympathetic juries and judges and the complexity of the judicial procedures, more than a dozen states have passed laws in recent years under which an arrested driver is presumed to be drunk if a breath test shows he has more than the maximum permissible level of alcohol in his system.Since the penalty for refusing to submit to this test is similar to that for failing it, there is little incentive for a suspect not to cooperate.

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