Measure targets drunken boat, ATV, sled drivers

Posted March 16, 2009, at 11:16 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s trails and waterways will become safer if drunken operators of boats, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles face the prospect of having their motor vehicle licenses lifted, a legislative committee heard Monday.

Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, has sponsored a bill similar to ones she said have “been tried and tried and tried” in the past. But Austin told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that it’s time for a change: Her bill wouldn’t mandate driver’s license suspensions for those convicted of drunken driving on watercraft and ATVs; rather, a new law would leave it to a judge’s discretion.

Supporters said changes would effectively empower game wardens, who issue the citations, but opponents say lines need to be drawn between the on-road and off-road offenses.

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Austin said it will add enforcement muscle to state game wardens, who are stretched by increasingly tight finances as they face other responsibilities such as search and rescue.

“When resources are stretched, creative policies must be considered,” Austin told committee members in a hearing.

Austin’s bill received the support of Gov. John Baldacci’s administration. Col. Joel Wilkinson of the Maine Warden Service said impaired operators of boats, ATVs and snowmobiles are often impaired as well when they tow their recreational vehicles home.

Rep. Ralph Sarty Jr., R-Denmark, a former state trooper, warden and deputy sheriff, agreed.

“There’s a definite link here that I think the state of Maine has to address. We often find the same people are abusing this no matter what vehicles they operate,” the Denmark Republican told the committee.

State law bars operation of motor vehicles, boats, ATVs and snowmobiles with blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher.

Residents do not need a state license to drive boats, ATVs or snowmobiles.

Opponents of Austin’s bill said there’s no connection between operation of vehicles on the highways and on the trails or water. They also said the state’s current laws against drunken operation of boats, power sleds and ATVs are sufficient.

“We strongly support throwing the book at them,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, which represents 30,000 snowmobilers in the state. “We endorse zero tolerance.”

Fines for first-time violators for drunken operation of boats, ATVs and snowmobiles are a minimum of $400. Refusal to take a blood alcohol test, refusing to stop and other aggravating factors can bring stiffer fines and jail time.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles also opposed the bill.

The BMV’s Robert O’Connell said operation of the three recreational vehicles is “wholly unrelated to the operation of motor vehicles.”

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