Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Bill seeks to lower OUI limit
March 12, 2007 - Bangor Daily News by Mal Leary, Capitol News Service

AUGUSTA - A state senator proposes to lower the legal blood alcohol level in motor vehicle operators in Maine to 0.06 percent from the current legal limit of 0.08 percent.

"What I am proposing is that a person with average weight who has had three drinks in rapid succession over an hour with no food in his stomach should not drive," said Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville. "Thatís what the studies show a person would have consumed to reach the limit I am proposing."

He said the state needs to review what it is doing to deal with the problem of drunken driving and lower the threshold for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

"I think a person at 0.06 is well on their way to significant impairment, in my opinion," he said. "I donít think we want that person on the road. I know I donít want that person on the road."

Mills, a lawyer, said the reality of Maineís OUI laws is a bit different from the apparent preciseness of a blood alcohol level determined to two decimal places. He said the devices used to measure BAC, blood alcohol content, have a margin of error, and that a person convicted with a BAC of 0.08 may well have been at 0.09 or even 0.10.

"If your blood level is 0.10, which by the way is five drinks over an hour or an hour and a half by a person of average weight, thatís a lot of alcohol," he said. "That person is impaired and should not be on the road."

Mills said that by lowering the legal limit, more drunken drivers can be convicted more easily, which will send a clearer message that if you drink and drive, you will be punished. He said raising penalties rather than lowering the limit would not send as clear a message of no tolerance for drunken drivers on the road.

"If itís easier to convict them, and they get convicted more frequently, the more likely you will turn some of these young alcoholics around," Mills said. "The sad truth is you need to hit them often. We are already hitting them hard."

In 2006, 3,978 driverís licenses were suspended for driving while exceeding the 0.08 limit. For 2005, the most recent statistics available, there were 7,274 OUI arrests. A first conviction is at least a 90-day license suspension and a minimum fine of $400. That escalates rapidly on a second offense to jail time, long license suspensions and fines that easily can be more than $1,000.

Millsí proposal is being met with skepticism by some lawmakers.

"There is probably room for debate," said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. "But my opinion is that the 0.08 level has worked very well."

Diamond is co-chairman of the legislatureís Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that will consider Millsí proposal. He also served as secretary of state in the early 1990s and dealt extensively with the problem of drunken drivers.

"Based on my past experience," he said, "I think if we are going to focus more resources, it should be on those that are well above the limit of 0.08, not lower the limit."

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Hodgdon, who also serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, said while he certainly will wait to hear all of Millsí arguments, he agrees with Diamond that if the OUI laws need changing, it should be to focus more on those who are driving well in excess of the limit.

"We hear a lot of anecdotes but I would like to see some numbers," he said.

Mills points to the statistics that indicate younger drivers are more likely to drink and drive than older drivers and need more of the focus. The secretary of stateís office statistics back that up. Last year, there were 800 drivers from 20 to 24 years old who had their licenses suspended for OUI. Among all the drivers older than 64, there were just 80 suspensions.

"I want to see the bill and hear the testimony," said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the House co-chairman of the committee. "But Iím going to take some convincing. I believe if it ainít broke, donít fix it."

The public hearing for the bill has not been scheduled.