In December 2009, as UPS driver Shannon Ronan was making a round of holiday deliveries in Naples, he was struck from behind by a commercial bucket-type utility truck and killed.
The driver of the bucket truck was taking a maintenance dose of methadone, a synthetic narcotic used to relieve pain or prevent withdrawal symptoms from opiate addition.
The driver who caused the accident was never charged.
Ronan's widow, Lisa Ronan, pushed for and won passage of a law — signed by Gov. Paul LePage in July last year — making it a crime for anyone to drive a large commercial vehicle while on methadone, bringing Maine in line with federal law prohibiting methadone use by intrastate truckers.
One month after that law was signed, Crescent Elementary School third-grader Matthew Thurston was a back-seat passenger in a Jeep that crashed into a utility pole, careened several hundred feet off the road before hitting a tree and bursting into flames just off Route 26 in Oxford.
The driver of that vehicle was Matty’s mother, Jessica Thurston, who had taken a prescribed dose of methadone and told police she fell asleep at the wheel.
Young “Matty” died from his injuries two months later.
Jessica Thurston, who has a history of accidents, was never charged.
Matty Thurston’s extended family is now pushing to expand the criminal penalties to include all drivers on methadone, not just professional drivers.
Given that the number of Mainers now using methadone has jumped from 200 in 1996 to 1,500 this year — a sevenfold spike in 16 years — it makes sense to ensure that these motorists are not endangering the rest of us traveling Maine’s roads.
According to a 2010 report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only 17 states have passed laws that make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle if there is a “detectable” level of a prohibited drug — like methadone — in a driver’s body.
Of those, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia established guidelines for specific limits of intoxicating drugs, much like states’ OUI levels are generally set at 0.8 percent BAC, but the rest — 14 states — have a zero tolerance rule for the presence of any and all intoxicating drugs.
A violation of Maine’s methadone ban for commercial drivers is a Class E misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and/or six months in a county jail. We support expanding that penalty to anyone who is impaired by methadone and gets behind the wheel.
Jessica Thurston did not respond to requests for an interview for our story published Tuesday, but she did talk to the Sun Journal after it was printed, saying she never got four messages left for her and confirming that she had taken her usual dose of methadone just hours before the 11:30 a.m. accident.
Maine lawmakers acted quickly to impose a penalty on methadone-using commercial drivers after Ronan's death. They can and should do likewise now for all drivers traveling Maine's roads.
Matty Thurston is dead. Let's protect others in his name.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.