A public hearing at the Statehouse in Annapolis Wednesday afternoon turned heart-wrenching as family members shared their stories about loved ones who had been killed at the hands of drunken drivers.
They had come out in support of a proposed bill that would expand the use of ignition interlocks in the state. The bill would require first-time offenders convicted of drunken driving to use an ignition interlock device, which prevents a driver from starting his or her vehicle if a breathalyzer registers a blood alcohol level (BAC) higher than what’s specified in the bill.
The bill would expand on existing Maryland law that requires repeat offenders or first-time offenders who register above a .15 BAC use an ignition interlock to avoid having their licenses suspended.
Supporters of the legislation testified Wednesday that use of the interlock systems could be a significant deterrent to drunken driving in the state and called for the bar for first-time offenders who are required to use the device to be lowered to anyone who registers over a .08 BAC. The bill would also double the period of time offenders would have their licenses suspended compared to current law.
The bill is named after Montgomery County police Officer Noah Leotta, who was struck by a vehicle driven by a suspected drunken driver on Rockville Pike in December and died seven days later from injuries he suffered in the collision. When Leotta was struck, he was serving as a member of a holiday task force that was working to enforce DUI laws. Leotta was conducting a traffic stop at the time.
On Wednesday, Leotta’s family members and others urged the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee to support the bill, which has been presented in varying forms since 2009. The bill first needs to be approved by the committee before it can be brought for a vote by the full General Assembly.
“Don’t let Noah’s death be in vain. Please do the right thing and save lives,” Marcia Goldman, Noah’s mother, said.
Jennifer Edwards told legislators about how her fiancé Bryan Ross and her 4-year-old daughter Emma Grace were killed by a drunken driver in January 2008 in Rock Hall, Maryland.
“The driver was a repeat offender who continuously drove drunk until he killed himself and took my family with him,” Edwards said.
The supporters of the bill included police leaders from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the leader of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, representatives from the Maryland State Police and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a prosecutor with the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, the executive director of the American Trauma Society and even a previous offender who said using an ignition interlock system turned her life around after she was convicted of drunken driving three times.
They were there to urge the committee and its chairman—Del. Joseph Vallario (D-Prince George’s County)—to move the bill to the full General Assembly. Vallario has been publicly accused of stonewalling the legislation in the past. Two weeks ago Leotta’s father, Richard Leotta, accused Vallario during a press conference of a conflict of interest because the delegate also works as a defense attorney who represents accused drunken drivers.
Vallario has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Bethesda Beat, but he did address the existing law before the public hearing began.
He said the state is at the “forefront of ignition interlock.” He cited a state report that found that from 2010 to 2015 there was a 60 percent increase in the use of ignition interlock devices. He also cited a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that traffic fatalities involving drunken drivers had dropped from 165 in 2005 to 130 in 2014.
“That is an improvement,” Vallario said. “We can do better and we will continue to do better. We’re all concerned. I can only tell you that this committee and this legislature will do its best to protect citizens of this state.”
Del. Ben Kramer (D-Wheaton), the lead sponsor of the bill, attributed part of the decline in deaths to the current interlock law. He said it’s time to strengthen the law.
“The question everyone should be asking about Noah’s law is not, ‘Why pass Noah’s law?’, but why not? Why not?” Kramer said.