Local News

Maine Sets Standard, NC Follows With Drunk Driving Proposal

Posted May 11, 1999

— North Carolina has always been a pioneer when it comes to drunk driving laws. Now, the state is considering a bill which would lower the legal blood alcohol limit for repeat offenders. The architects of the law say Maine is a good example of how the law could work.

When most of us think ofMaine, we picture rocky coastlines, historic lighthouses, and fresh lobsters. But Maine is also developing a reputation for putting the brakes on drunk drivers.

In 1988, Maine became the first state to lower the blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, to .05 for people who have already been convicted of drunk driving. In 1995, it was lowered to zero.

"What we do in Maine is we give people a chance, and if they violate that chance after the first offense, life's going to get miserable real quick," saysSecretary of State Dan Gwadosky.

People who enforce the laws in Maine agree that lowering the BAC for repeat offenders gives them a strong tool.

So do the victims of drunk driving accidents. Michelle Warneke is planning to bury her sister's ashes in a cemetery in Saco, Maine. Four years ago, Michelle and her sister, Stacy, were hit by a drunk driver. Michelle walked away; Stacy died.

Warneke helped start Maine's firstMothers Against Drunk Drivingchapter. She strongly supports lower BAC levels for repeat offenders.

"How many chances do they get? Nobody else gets a second chance," Warneke says.

Portland Police Officer Scott Mattox patrols the the state's biggest city. On this night an alleged drunk driver hits a woman on a bike.

First, Mattox gives the driver a field sobriety test, then a breathalyzer test. The driver is over the legal limit. ".08 is the legal limit in Maine and you're a .11," Mattox tells the driver.

Boston University researcher Ralph Hingson has studied Maine's drunk driving laws. He says after Maine cracked down on repeat offenders, the number of them involved in fatal crashes dropped by 25 percent.

Hingson believes the findings are significant. "Other states should take a look at it," Hingson says. "We should continue studying it."

But Mattox says he does not have to study the law to see that it is working. "Some nights we don't come up with anything and that's a good sign I think," Mattox says.

Currently, Maine and Utah are the only states which have blood alcohol standards for repeat offenders that are lower than North Carolina's.North Carolina lawmakersare looking at a bill which would lower the level from .08 to .04 for second time offenders, and to zero after that.

Lieutenant Governor Dennis Wicker, who heads the state's DWI Task Force, says Maine is the model for the idea. "We feel like the proposal will go a long way towards doing what it did in Maine in North Carolina," Wicker says.

The measure has already passed theState House.

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