BANGOR, Maine — Despite widespread advertising campaigns and increased police patrols aimed at deterring drunken drivers, Maine was one of 18 states that saw an increase in alcohol-related fatalities in 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Statistics released this week by NHTSA showed that 66 people died on Maine roads in alcohol-fueled accidents in 2007, 14 more than in 2006.
The data were released just ahead of the long holiday weekend that traditionally sees increased traffic throughout the country.
“This is the last big weekend of the summer for most people,” Col. Patrick Fleming of the Maine State Police said in an interview Friday. “People are going to go out, they are going to be at picnics and parties. We want them to think about it every time, but we really urge people to be cautious this weekend about drinking and driving.”
In 2006, 52 people died on Maine roads in accidents in which alcohol was a factor. The jump to 66 in 2007 represents an increase of 21 percent. Drunken driving deaths are defined as fatalities that occur when the driver involved had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher, the legal limit in the U.S.
“Maine is such a small state that one or two [deaths] can skew the numbers,” Fleming said. “As this year goes on, we’re hopeful our numbers will come back down, but we still emphasize [drinking and driving] as a major problem throughout the state. It’s always a matter of making people more aware.”
Fleming did not have the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths so far in 2008.
Nationally, the data were positive. There were 493 fewer alcohol-related fatalities in the United States in 2007, a decrease of 4 percent from 2006. The nation saw 13,491 alcohol-related traffic deaths in 2006, and 12,998 in 2007.
Individually, 32 states saw decreases, led by California (117 fewer), Texas (108) and Arizona (63).
California was particularly successful in its education efforts. The state conducted more than 1,000 sobriety checkpoints during the year and encouraged motorists to dial 911 on their cell phones if they spot a potentially drunken driver, said Christopher Murphy, who leads the state’s traffic safety office.
“Our vision is really toward zero deaths — everyone counts, so we’re not exactly celebrating these numbers,” Murphy said.
On the other side, North Carolina saw the biggest increase, from 421 alcohol-related fatalities in 2006 to 487 in 2007, an increase of 66 deaths. Its neighbor South Carolina was next with an increase of 44.
Maine was further down the list, but Fleming said any increase is not good.
“In a lot of cases, if you look at the cause of most fatal accidents, it’s speed or alcohol,” he said. “And those are choices. You or someone else could pay the ultimate price for something that’s a choice.”
Also included in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s data was a breakdown for alcohol-related fatalities involving motorcycles. A total of 1,621 motorcyclists were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in 2007, an increase of 7.5 percent over 2006. Maine actually saw a decrease, although the numbers were small (six in 2006, five in 2007).
Fleming said that in Maine, state police troopers are always on the lookout for potential drunken drivers but that it’s often like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“On a regular shift, a trooper would be monitoring traffic in addition to a number of other duties. We can’t catch everything,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.