The Perception Of Who Is The Victim In Drunk Driving Cases
The signs outside the Statehouse today were directed at one person. "Joe Owens: My Brother and How Many Others?" said one. "Senate Says Yes, Motor Vehicle Administration Says Yes, Only Joe Owens Says No!" said another.
The sign-bearers were the survivors -- the sisters, the parents, the nieces and nephews -- of drunk driving victims. Their target was Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee taking testimony on the subject of drunk driving. To hear the picketers tell it he is the largest single roadblock to reform.
"He's the only one stopping the bills from going through," asserted Wendy Basile of Hyattsville, whose brother was killed in an accident last January. "I'm sure it's not only Joe," said Charles Tompkins, a Greenbelt man whose son met a similar fate in October, "but he just seems to be the focal point."
With more drunk driving bills than ever before the General Assembly -- 106 by the latest count -- and the proponents better organized than in the past, Joe Owens has indeed become the focal point. As usual, a package for drunk driving victims has won Senate approval and now awaits the action of his key committee.
"When they want to blame you, you're influential," said the silver-haired lawmaker who wears the mantle of villain but insists it doesn't fit. "Whatever the committee wants to do, I only have one vote."
Even liberal members of his conservative committee say the public perception of Owens as the heavy-handed godfather is unfair to the man who, they say, earns respect by thoughtful presentation of his views. He only votes to break to tie, and although his views on a subject are often known, there is not wrathful revenge in store for dissenters, they say.
Members of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), a growing grassroots organization fighting for tough new laws, have tried to lobby other members of Owens' committee. They recently mailed each a questionnaire, seeking commitments to their cause, but only three of the panel members have replied.
The law they want most would lower the level of alcohol legally permissible in a driver's blood, and, as it happens, this is the law Owens wants least. He argues that the change would only clog the courts with more cases and would result in charges being plea-bargained down to reckless driving or some other lesser crime unrelated to alcohol.
The proponents say no such thing will happen. Instead, they say, the public's perception of how much one can drink legally will change, saving lives in the process. They also note that the proposal, part of a package that emerged from a governor's task force last year, retains two levels of criminality in measuring blood alcohol content to permit some prosecutorial and judicial leeway.