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Northeast states crack down on youths who drink and drive

A 13-year-old Vermont boy narrowly missed causing a head-on crash one night last month. The youth and a 17-year-old too-drunk-to-drive companion for whom he was driving were returning from the home of an 18-year-old friend. On Oct. 11, the 18-year-old pleaded innocent to charges of serving liquor to a minor.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, it is expected to spark a new push to raise Vermont's legal drinking age. All of its neighboring states have raised their legal drinking ages in recent years.

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But unless Gov. Richard A. Snelling, who has twice vetoed such measures, changes his stance on the question, liquor purchases and consumption will remain within reach of 18-year-olds in the state.

The incident involving the 13-year-old comes at a time when the proportion of liquor-related traffic fatalities has been climbing in Vermont.

While the number of road deaths statewide dropped from 65 to 61 from last January through September, in comparison with the same nine months in 1982, those involving alcoholic beverages rose from 47.7 percent to 54 percent, according to Vermont Highway Safety officials.

Meanwhile, other efforts in the Northeast to rid highways of drunken drivers, especially the young and repeat offenders, are gaining momentum.

In Maine, for example, a tough new law has cost more than 500 teen-agers their driving licenses during the past four months. The new law, being watched nationwide, provides for automatic one-year license suspension for any motorist under age 20 who has a blood alcohol level of 0.022 and is caught operating a motor vehicle.

Critics charge that the law is discriminatory, because it applies to only one group of citizens - those under the drinking age.

Backers of the measure, which was upheld as constitutional earlier this month by a Maine Superior Court judge, anticipate it will make state roads safer and discourage teen-agers from violating the drinking age law.

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To get the word out to youths that they cannot drink and drive, some 90,000 leaflets are being distributed throughout high schools and among youth groups across Maine, according to Albert L. Godfrey Sr., director of the governor's highway safety program.

Noting that in its first 90 days the statute cost 496 teen-age motorists their licenses, he says he expects the total will climb more slowly.

Current emphasis in the anti-drunken-driving effort in Massachusetts continues to center on weekend police roadblocks launched last spring by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. Particular attention in recent weeks has been given to areas near various college campuses throughout the commonwealth.

State legislators here, while supportive of the stepped-up enforcement drive to get intoxicated motorists off the roads, are currently weighing two key proposals for making these laws strong, or at least work better.

A Senate committee is pushing a measure to sharpen the teeth of a 1982 statute providing tougher penalties, including a mandatory seven-day jail sentence for a second driving-while-intoxicated conviction. The proposed change would require that the confinement be served on consecutive days rather than weekends, which now is permitted because of a loophole in the law.

Other groups, including the state's American Automobile Association, are pushing hard for raising the Massachusetts drinking age from 20 to 21, as favored by the President's Commission on Drunk Driving.

The legislation, which cleared the House Oct. 13, must still make it through the Senate before reaching the governor, who has indicated he would sign it.

Earlier this year a similar measure in Rhode Island got through that state's lower legislative chamber, but was defeated in the Senate. Another attempt to pass it is expected in 1984.

Thus far, New Hampshire is the only New England state with a drinking age of 21 on its books. But that measure, enacted earlier this year, takes effect only if both neighboring Maine and Massachusetts follow suit.

Connecticut became the fifth New England state to raise its drinking age to 20, which it did at the beginning of the month. Anti-drunken-driving activists are considering trying to raise the age one more year.

The success of such legislation could hinge on whether Massachusetts and Rhode Island move in that direction. New York, which also abuts Connecticut, raised its drinking age from 18 to 19 last year.

Except for Vermont, New York is the only place in the Northeast - the Middle Atlantic region and New England states - where people under 20 can legally purchase and consume liquor.

Elsewhere within the 11-state region, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey have raised their minimum drinking ages to 21 for all types of liquor within the past year.

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