CARIBOU, Maine — No matter what time of year it is, law enforcement officers are always on the lookout for impaired motorists.
April is particularly challenging, as schools in Maine adjourn for vacation and colleges cease classes for spring break, offering more time for partying and drinking.
Aroostook County law enforcement officers will be out in full force starting Friday, April 13, thanks to a federal grant that will help them crackdown on underage drinking, driving under the influence, and charging those who provide alcohol.
Aroostook County was one of only four sites in the nation selected to participate in the demonstration project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The goal of the Underage Drinking, Adult Consequences campaign is to limit youth access to alcohol, the No. 1 drug problem for County teens.
Community Voices, a countywide organization that works to curb substance abuse among youth, was awarded a $325,000 grant that will allow them to work with 11 law enforcement organizations on a pilot project to get alcohol out of the hands of minors.
Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins, one of the partners in the effort, said Thursday that some people do not think underage drinking is that big of a problem.
“But it is,” he said. “It has a substantial impact on our communities, and we don’t always know about it.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teens are at far greater risk of death in an alcohol-related crash than the overall population, despite the fact that they are below the minimum drinking age in every state.
31 percent of 15- to 20-year-old drivers who were killed in crashes in 2006 had been drinking.
According to Maine’s office of substance abuse, a 2008 statewide survey reported that 48.8 percent of Maine students in grades seven through 12 had tried alcohol. Research also has shown that 40 percent of children who begin drinking before age 15 will develop alcohol abuse or dependence at some point in their lives.
Collins pointed to statistics showing that the earlier someone begins experimenting with alcohol, the more harmful the consequences and the harder it is for them to stop.
The new campaign will “let communities know that we will hold irresponsible adults [who provide alcohol to minors] accountable,” Collins said.
“Police will be more visible and there will be increased patrols,” he continued, adding that he believed the campaign would have a big effect on County communities.
Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan, who also is the chair of the Aroostook County Chiefs Association, agreed, saying there was significant benefit from having the collaboration between law enforcement during the campaign.
Fort Kent Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said in some cases, parents back down on vigilance surrounding alcohol after their children graduate from high school.
“Some think that since their kids have graduated, its OK for them to party and have parties and things,” he said. “Well, it’s not OK.”
Michelle Plourde Chasse, Community Voices project manager, said she thinks the program is going to reach youth early and teach them about some of the dangers of drinking and of drinking and getting behind the wheel. Along with the increased police presence, the campaign will include TV and radio ads and messages on social networking sites.
“The earlier we reach youth and educate them about this, the more of an impact it will make,” said Plourde Chasse.