The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety has, in recent weeks, distributed $440,000 in federal funds to 52 police departments across the state to be used to combat drunk and impaired driving.
It’s part of a national “drive sober” campaign to provide money for increased police patrols and overtime wages for departments between Dec. 14 and Jan 2, and again from Aug. 16 to Sept. 2 in the new year, with funds going to departments in Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon, Mexico, Dixfield, Wilton, Rumford, Norway and Bridgton, among others.
“DriveSober Maine” is not a “gotcha” campaign. It’s a campaign of deterrence.
It’s not a campaign to punish. It’s a campaign of protection and prevention.
It is, according to police and highway safety officials, a campaign to enforce the law and save lives.
Despite years of massive, high-profile, public-awareness campaigns by public officials and private organizations, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, people continue to drive drunk, crash drunk and kill others on the road, including their own passengers.
In Maine in 1995, 51 people died in accidents in which at least one driver had a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher, which is over the legal threshold. Another five died in accidents in which at least one driver had a BAC of between 0.01 and 0.07, or the equivalent of two beers.
In 2006, 66 people died in accidents in which at least one driver was over the legal BAC limit, and another eight died in accidents in which at least one driver had a couple of drinks.
During that time, Maine’s laws to punish drunk driving have become more stringent and “Don’t Drink and Drive” has become part of the American vernacular. And, yet, too many people are still dying because too many drunks and near-drunks are still behind the wheel.
In 2007, 72 people died in Maine in alcohol-related accidents. The number was down significantly the following year, with 47 deaths, and up again slightly in 2008, with 53 deaths. In 2010, the number dropped again, with 37 deaths and was down even more last year, with 35 deaths. Overall, that’s a steady drop in the past five years, and the lowest number of alcohol-related deaths in Maine since the 1970s.
However, as low as the number was last year, 35 people killed on Maine roads is still a tragedy when nearly all — if not all — could have been avoided by greater driver responsibility.
Alcohol has a tendency to reduce common sense and erase good decision-making, and it has taken a tremendous amount of time, energy and public dollars to raise awareness of the perils of drunk driving, not just to potential victims, but to drivers who face fines, license suspension and possible jail time.
This month, which is National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month, the push is on to drive the dangers of impaired driving home during a holiday season typically packed with social drinking.
“No one ever thinks that their holiday celebration will end in jail, in a hospital or in the morgue,” said state Highway Safety Director Lauren Stewart.
“But, combining alcohol and driving can lead to one of those three locations. That’s why we are stepping up enforcement of impaired drivers,” she said.
Highway and police officials are not asking everyone to put down their drinks, but they are asking that we be aware that by drinking, we are endangering everyone else on the road. So, plan ahead. Arrange a designated driver, take public transportation, arrange a ride home in advance or walk to the party.
Just don’t tip back your glass and then get behind the wheel. And, don’t watch as someone you know is drunk drives away.
Maine has made great strides in recent years to reduce the death toll on its roads. And, in fact, this is now the fifth-safest state in the nation when it comes to alcohol-related fatalities (Utah is the safest; North Dakota the deadliest).
This is one category in which we want to be first. We want to be the safest. We want to lead the nation.
Do your part to protect yourself and others.
Drive sober. Please.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.