Lawmakers ponder alcohol-related fatalities

Posted Dec. 01, 2008, at 8:25 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A report released by Mothers Against Drunk Driving suggests Maine still has work to do to reduce the number of alcohol-related highway fatalities.

Of all traffic deaths in Maine in 2007, 66, or 36 percent, involved alcohol. That percentage ranked Maine 42nd among 50 states and the District of Columbia and represented a 27 percent increase over the number of alcohol-related fatalities in 2006.

“The truth is, we’re always looking at ways to improve our laws,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “But it’s not like we’d be happy if we got it down to 10 percent. It would still be too many.”

The report released last week by MADD also offered opinions about each state’s progress. Utah had the lowest percentage of deaths involving drunken drivers, at 17 percent, while North Dakota’s rate of 48 percent was the highest.

MADD credited Maine for passing a 2008 law that allows repeat driving offenders to use an ignition interlock system at a judge’s discretion, but said the law should be mandatory. Maine had been one of only five states not to employ an interlock system, which prevents vehicles from starting unless the operator provides a breath sample with an alcohol concentration below a set level.

No data have been released on how often judges have required ignition interlock systems in Maine. Diamond said that because the law was enacted only a few months ago, it hasn’t had a chance to be successful.

“Initially, I was taken aback at our ranking because I felt we had made some strides,” he said. “But it does take time for some of these laws to have an effect.”

Ignition interlock devices have greatly improved in quality and reliability in recent years. Some are equipped with cameras to record the person who actually blows into the device, and some can be equipped to randomly require the person to be tested again after first starting the vehicle.

Even though drunken driving laws passed during the last legislative session, Diamond predicted that 15 to 20 bills would be introduced in January that directly or indirectly address that issue.

“I think, a lot of times, new legislators introduce bills that they think are specific to their area, and we always see bills that seek mandatory sentences,” he said. “But the problem with that is we can’t afford to keep putting people in jail at taxpayers’ expense. We need to think more about prevention than punishment.”

The Legislature has taken steps to focus on what Diamond called hard-core drunken drivers and repeat offenders, but he said the state still has a number of social drinkers who get behind the wheel when they should not.

To that end, Sen. Peter Mills introduced legislation during the last session that sought to lower the legal blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.06. The bill would have made Maine the only state with a limit that low but it failed to make it to the floor.

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