AUGUSTA – Despite spending $300,000 on a truck to curb impaired driving three years ago, traffic safety data shows Maine has had little change in convictions for operating under the influence or fatalities from crashes in which one driver was intoxicated during that time.

The truck was purchased with a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grant — which is used to fund a number of other highway safety projects — for $300,000 in September 2016. The truck houses an Intoxilyzer breath-alcohol testing device and an area where officers can conduct field sobriety testing. The truck also is outfitted with cameras that record sobriety testing.

Lauren Stewart, director of the state’s Bureau of Highway Safety, said her agency bought the vehicle because “impaired driving continues to be a contributing factor in upwards of 30% or more of Maine motor vehicle fatalities.” She noted that “many state highway safety offices have purchased one or more similar units” for the same reason.

Jamie Dionne, the bureau’s highway safety coordinator, said deterring drunken driving is the main goal of checkpoints, a primary use for the truck, and that is hard to measure.

According to highway safety bureau data, no clear conclusion about a change in impaired driving can be drawn from data about vehicle crashes in which drivers were impaired. Portland had 84 impaired driving crashes in 2018, but had 60 in 2017 and 93 in 2016. Some towns experienced increases, such as Standish, which jumped from six in 2017 to 16 in 2018. Decreases occurred elsewhere; Falmouth had eight impaired driving crashes in 2018, compared to 14 in 2017.

Data from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles shows convictions for operating under the influence were down statewide in 2018 over 2017. In 2018, there were 3,947 convictions, down from 4,126 in 2017 and 4,105 in 2016. But the number was lower in 2015, when there were 3,934; and 2014, when 3,831 were recorded.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows that fatalities involving alcohol-impaired drivers also have been fairly steady in Maine after a large increase from 2013 to 2014.

In 2017, according to the agency’s data, 50 of 172 — or 29% — traffic accident fatalities involved a driver with a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.08, or the legal limit. In 2016, that number was 54 — or 33% — of 161 fatalities. In 2015, it was 52 — or 33% — of 156 fatalities. In 2014, it was 44 — or 33% — of 131 fatalities. In 2013, it was 40 — or 21% — of 189 fatalities.

State police specialist Seth Allen said the best indicator of a reduction in drunken driving would be crash statistics and fatalities, which he said have stayed the same over the past few years. Despite the numbers stagnating, he said the vehicle is a success because it makes law enforcement more efficient.

 

USE OF THE VEHICLE

Allen said the truck makes it easier to conduct fieldwork in more remote areas of the state where an Intoxilyzer might not be available. He added that the truck makes it easier for those charged with OUI to be sent home with sober drivers with a summons instead of being arrested. That allows officers to get back to work more quickly and saves taxpayers money that would be spent on a short stay in jail.

“In rural Maine, you may be looking at a half an hour or greater before you can get somebody to an Intoxilyzer machine,” Allen said. “Overall, we’re big fans of (the truck); it’s just a nicely thought-out piece of equipment.”

Sgt. Frank Hatch, of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, echoed Allen’s comments on the vehicle’s efficiency.

“It makes the process a lot quicker and smoother, which cuts down the time where a deputy has to be traveling and commuting,” he said, adding that it increases a chance a deputy could catch another impaired driver.

Augusta Police Dept. Major Jared Mills, left, Bureau of Highway Safety analyst Jessica Voisine and Augusta Police Lt. Kevin Lully walk around the state’s new Impaired Driving Roadside Testing Vehicle that was unveiled Sept. 28, 2016 at the Maine Department of Public Safety in Augusta. The vehicle that enables police to conduct sobriety tests on the road was purchased with federal grant money for a little less than $300,000. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Tom Reagan, Bureau of Highway Safety spokesman, said the vehicle has been to “at least” 107 events, breaking down to 44 public relations appearances and 63 enforcement events. The truck has logged 7,395 miles in almost three years of operation.

A clearer record of appearances is not available, according to Reagan, because the bureau switched methods for scheduling the vehicle and some of the events “were not transferred” properly.

In 2018, police from Auburn, Bucksport, Ellsworth, Gardiner, Lewiston, Kennebec County, Sagadahoc County and York County, as well as the Maine State Police and its Impaired Driving Reduction Enforcement Branch and Sagadahoc County’s Regional Impaired Driving Enforcement branch, conducted 24 checkpoints with the vehicle, according to highway safety bureau data.

At those checkpoints, 11,615 vehicles were checked during a total of 689 hours and resulted in 48 operating under the influence charges — a 0.4% occurrence.

Dionne said it was difficult to measure the success of those checkpoints because there’s no way to tell how many people are deterred from impaired driving after hearing about checkpoints, which usually are heavily publicized.

“A lot of people question as to why sobriety checkpoints are so highly publicized,” he said. “The hope is that people are aware of the enforcement efforts and decide not to drive impaired.”

When asked whether he thinks the truck has been successful in deterring drunken driving, Dionne said the truck itself might not be a deterrence, but it has “helped promote” impaired driving checkpoints.

Some departments might have more use for the truck than others. Augusta police Deputy Chief Kevin Lully said his department has not been involved with the vehicle since officials attended the vehicle’s introduction in 2016.

Augusta hasn’t used the truck, he said, because it would require a stationary checkpoint staffed by multiple officers. That, Lully said, covers less territory than the same number of officers patrolling as usual.

“Because Augusta has so many arteries coming in, a stationary checkpoint can be narrow in scope,” he said. “Sometimes it is a combination of specific need, staffing, community events or other factors that gauge what type of patrol we have available.”

Lully said the department plans to use the vehicle in July. Reagan said Augusta police asked for the truck for a May OUI checkpoint that was canceled later.

Reagan said the truck will be used three times this week and has been scheduled for use in York County, Houlton and Stonington during the first week of July.

“This summer is really starting to fill up, though,” he said. “I anticipated its frequent use right through the summer.”

 

FEDS PAY COSTS

Stewart said her department uses federal funds earmarked for impaired driving reduction efforts to cover costs associated with the use of the vehicle. She said the bureau helps law enforcement agencies find a driver when they request use of the truck. Reagan said it costs “well under” $1,000 a year to maintain the vehicle. It is stored indoors during the winter through a partnership with LifeFlight of Maine.

Stewart said the truck — which was bought with grant funds for countermeasures against alcohol-impaired driving and for vehicle occupant protection — was identified as part of a strategic plan by her department, along with several other projects paid for by federal grants.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, Maine received $6,191,524 in grants in fiscal year 2018 and $6,107,012 in fiscal year 2017. Those figures are much higher than funding for the previous three fiscal years. The state received $3,725,711 in grants in fiscal year 2014, $3,714,536 in fiscal year 2015 and $3,817,547 in fiscal year 2016.

Other ways federal funds are used, Stewart said, include paying overtime costs for impaired-driving details, bolstering impaired-driving branches of police departments and supporting data analysis. She said those programs could have received more funding if the truck had not been purchased, but added that they do not go underfunded as a result of the acquisition.

As for whether individual patrol cars could have been outfitted with alcohol breath testers, Reagan said his best guess about the cost was $9,000 for each unit. At that estimated cost, the grant would have paid for only 33 units.

Reagan also noted that it would be risky to buy units for cars in Maine, because cruisers often are left outside in inclement weather, and a liquid solution used in some devices could freeze. Other types of devices use a gas, he noted, and said his department is considering a transition to that style of alcohol breath tester.

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