In a few days, Maine law enforcement will take a small but important step toward preventing repeat drunken driving – a step so small and so important some people will be surprised to hear that it wasn’t the law already.
Under current law, first and second convictions for drunken driving are a misdemeanor crime. But a third incident in a 10-year period – or a first or second offense that results in a serious injury or death – is a felony; the offender is subject to incarceration and lifelong consequences like the loss of some professional licenses and the right to own a firearm.
After the first felony conviction, every subsequent drunken-driving conviction is considered a felony, but until now, there has been a catch: The convictions had to have taken place within a 10-year period. After that, the law resets and a driver can be caught drunk behind the wheel and start the process all over again,
Since alcohol addiction is a lifelong disease subject to multiple relapses separated by long periods, the 10-year reset never made any sense. The state is right to keep this clock ticking, but it could do more.
A stronger version of the bill that would have counted all misdemeanor drunken-driving convictions, no matter how old, when deciding whether an offense should be considered a felony did not have enough support to pass the Legislature. Gov. LePage said the version that reached his desk was not strong enough and vetoed it.
Legislators recognized that a small step in the right direction is better than no step at all and overrode the veto, but the governor is right. This bill did not go far enough, and the next Legislature should try again.
There has been significant progress on reducing the number of drunken-driving fatalities since Maine and other states started taking the problem seriously. In 1983, there were 135 fatalities involving drunken drivers, accounting for 60 percent of the state’s traffic deaths. In 2011, there were 39 alcohol-involved highway deaths, less than a third of all highway fatalities in the state.
But those numbers could be even lower. While there has been success in stopping casual drinking and driving, hard-core alcoholics are less likely than others to respond to public information campaigns. Identifying the chronic abusers early in their careers and imposing tough penalties make it more difficult for them to get behind the wheel.
Once identified, drunken drivers need treatment. Investing in more residential and outpatient programs will save lives. We know this is true – the only question is whether we are willing to pay the cost.
The Legislature did the right thing by passing this incremental reform, but there still is a lot of work left to do.