AUGUSTA, Maine — Last month Michigan’s new “superdrunk” driving law took effect, boosting penalties for first-time offenders convicted of driving with a blood alcohol content exceeding 0.17 percent, more than twice the minimum threshold of 0.08. Some Maine lawmakers think the new Legislature should look at tougher penal-ties.
“I have no doubt we will see several OUI bills in this session, we always do,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who served as secretary of state for a decade. “We still have a very serious problem in our state with people driving drunk.”
He said the Michigan law is new, but he understands the effort to try to deter drunken driving by increasing minimum penalties for first-time offenders. Maine’s minimum is a $400 fine and a 90-day license suspension for a first-time offender, but Michigan has raised the minimums for those first-time offenders dramatically to a minimum $700 fine and a one-year license suspension and the ability for a judge to jail the person up to 180 days.
“We’re talking more than twice the legal limit,” Diamond said. “Someone is going to be severely impaired at that level and could well end up killing some innocent driver.”
He said tougher penalties should be considered by lawmakers even though it will cost taxpayers more to jail serious offenders. He said public safety costs money, but he believes the public will support tougher penalties.
In 2009 there were 8,203 OUI arrests in Maine, according to the secretary of state’s office. That is nearly one arrest an hour every day all year. There were 1,496 arrests with drivers with over 0.19 percent blood alcohol content and 452 with over 0.25 percent blood alcohol content.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, served on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in the 124th Legislature and will likely serve on the panel in the 125th Legislature. He said there have been several proposals to increase penalties in past sessions and said the Michigan approach is worth considering.
“The higher the blood alcohol content, generally to me, indicates the person is a frequent offender,” he said. “I think we should certainly look at this and see if it can help.”
Burns is a former state trooper and said law enforcement has been improving its efforts to catch drunken drivers. He said the more impaired a driver is the more dangerous they are to other drivers and the more they should be taken off the road.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, agreed the Michigan law or some similar proposal will come before lawmakers in the new session. He was chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in the 124th Legislature.
“We always have OUI bills because people are always concerned about drunk drivers,” he said. He said he has not reviewed the Michigan law but agreed with Diamond that there will likely be similar legislation in the new session.
“We have a serious problem with drunk driving, and we should look at all proposals to try and deal with the problem,” he said.
Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said, “The connection I would have to make before I could say I could support that kind of legislation is the connection between accidents and crashes and superdrunks.” But he is cautious about the Michigan approach because he is not convinced that even tougher penalties would deter drunken driving.
Plummer, who served on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in the 124th Legislature, said lawmakers also will have to carefully weigh the cost. He said it has been a battle in the Legislature to get adequate funding for the state’s jails and prisons, and any measure with any mandatory jail time will increase costs.