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Proposed Lower OUI Standard Debated in Maine
05/15/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

This week, the National Transportation Safety Board came out with a bold recommendation to reduce the number of deaths caused by drunk driving: drop the blood alcohol level threshold from .08 percent to .05 percent. According to the NTSB, more than 100 other countries use that standard, and since it was adopted in Europe over a decade ago, the number of drunk driving deaths has been cut in half. But as Patty Wight reports, some in Maine say the proposed standard takes aim at the wrong target.

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The NTSB backs up its new recommendation with a slew of statistics: Ten-thousand people die every year in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Thousands more are injured. And, since the mid-90s, the number of alcohol-related driving deaths have plateaued at about 30 percent. They haven't gone down any further. To make those numbers take a dive, the NTSB says states should reduce their blood alcohol level thresholds.

But Bangor criminal defense OUI lawyer Wayne Foote says the change would have an unfortunate consequence. "It's going to make criminals out of a lot of innocent people."

Foote says not everyone is impaired at a blood alcohol level of .05 percent. But if they are, current law already allows them to be prosecuted, "combined with other evidence that you can use to convict them. That means that if a person is truly impaired at say, .05 or .06, then they are impaired, and you can prove that in court and they can be convicted of OUI," he says.

How many drinks it takes to reach .05 percent depends on many variables, such as age, weight, and gender. But Dick Grotton of the Maine Restaurant Association says the lower threshold would penalize people who are just having a glass of wine or beer at a dinner out, instead of those with a true problem.

"We're looking at trying to get under control the folks who drink to extreme every day," he says. "We're not finding folks being arrested for OUI at .05, or .06, .07."

Lauren Steward of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety says most of Maine's alcohol-related driving deaths are associated with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher. Stewart says that number has held steady for the past five years, accounting for about 30 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in the state. "For the numbers below that, which we call alcohol related, that number is somewhere around nine percent," Stewart says.

That's when blood alcohol is below .08 percent. Stewart says it's too early to say whether the Bureau of Highway Safety will push for a lower threshold in Maine, as the NTSB recommends.

"All I can do is look at our data and figure out what our problem is and where we need to address our issues, and at this point, the majority of our crashes happen with people who are impaired at .08 to .15 and above," she says.

OUIs do tend to be one of the more common violations that police confront, says the executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, Bob Schwartz. He says when he considers the new federal recommendations, he looks to a law enforcement goal of keeping roads safe for everybody.

"If a person is impaired to the extent that they will have an accident or put anyone else in danger on the road with a .05, then I think it's obviously well worth the effort," Schwartz says.

The NTSB made a number of other recommendations to reduce alcohol-related driving deaths, such as establishing more sobriety checkpoints and requiring ignition interlock devices for OUI offenders. Those devices are installed in cars to detect the alcohol level of the driver, and lock the engine, if necessary. Maine lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would expand their use in the state.


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