Ask a prosecutor in Maryland about habitual drunk driving offenders, and they’ll tell you plenty. That’s because the state has a lot of repeat business from DUIs. The police are certainly arresting their fair share of drunk drivers, but their efforts are not being matched in other parts of the system. Too many drunk drivers face too few consequences, and as a result these dangerous offenders are returned to Maryland’s roads.
- Lenient courts. The maximum penalty for a single drunk driving conviction in Maryland is one year imprisonment. Repeat convictions can garner up to 3 years in jail. However, a standard DUI rarely gets anything near the maximum. Unless the DUI is associated with a gross injury or other crime, the chances are good that the sentence will be less than maximum. Often it is just probation or a few days in jail. Moreover, offenders can often get out of jail after serving a small part of their sentence, thanks to prison overcrowding.
- Reliance on suspension. A first conviction also carries a minimum 45 day license suspension. This might seem like an effective punishment, but the statistics say otherwise: more than half of suspended drivers continue to drive despite their suspension. And if they are problem drinkers, they will drive drunk.
- Inadequate ignition interlock laws. Currently 24 states have laws which mandate an ignition interlock for all DUI offenses, including first offenses. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. Maryland will only impose an interlock requirement for a first offense if the blood alcohol concentration (BC) of the offender is over .15 – about twice the legal limit. Even those offenders do not always get the interlock, if a judge rules otherwise. The good news is a new bill, Senate Bill 395, may change that. MADD and other safety advocates support the bill, which makes ignition interlocks mandatory for all offenders who blow .08 or above.
Chronic drunk drivers are a persistent, difficult problem, one that does not go away of its own accord. States that have had success reducing drunk driving deaths have done so through concerted effort. Maryland can do it too. Once the state gets serious about sentencing DUI offenders and beefs up its ignition interlock laws, Maryland will see a similar downturn in road deaths due to drunk driving.