It was a relatively quiet day in Waterville District Court Tuesday when Judge Andrew Benson called a man named Douglas to the podium and asked how he wanted to plead to a charge of operating under the influence of intoxicants.

A short, older man with dark hair, dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans, Douglas didn’t hesitate.

“Guilty,” he said.

About two dozen men and women sat watching from the wooden benches as Benson asked Douglas if he had had a chance to talk to an attorney for the state about the OUI charge before appearing in the courtroom. He also asked if he understood the charge, but Douglas told Benson he couldn’t hear him and asked him to speak up.

“I’m not half deaf, but pretty near,” he said.

A deputy judicial marshal handed him a hearing device, which he said helped, and the proceeding continued.

On or about Sept. 21 in Rome, according to Benson, police stopped Douglas for operating under the influence. On Tuesday, Benson imposed a $500 fine and a 150-day license suspension on Douglas as recommended by the state, but explained that with surcharges and fees, the fine would be $650. Douglas, who said he was 77, wasn’t thrilled to relinquish his license right then and there to the marshal, but acquiesced.

“I hate to give it to you,” he said. “I’ve had it a long time.”

It had been a while since I visited District Court for arraignment day and decided to drop in and observe. It’s typically a pretty busy place with defendants meeting with a representative of the District Attorney’s Office or attorney-for-the-day before speaking to the judge.

Typically, one doesn’t know what to expect at arraignments, and this day was no different. The men and women waiting to talk to Benson were pretty regular looking and I hadn’t a clue what they were there for.

But as they stepped up, one-by-one, to the microphone, a pattern started to emerge.

Several pleaded guilty to OUI, including a gray-haired, pony-tailed man named Francis who hobbled in with a black cane. He was wearing a knee brace and black leather jacket with an American flag and eagle splayed over the back and at one point said he would be able to pay the fine monthly after his disability check arrived.

Some pleaded not guilty to OUI. A bearded, bespectacled man named Matthew, who nervously cracked his knuckles at the microphone, said he understood the charges, had an attorney and didn’t flinch when Benson told him that there was a possibility that if he were convicted, he could go to jail.

A young man with long dark hair denied a charge of minor consuming liquor. He was ordered to attend a dispositional conference April 12 at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.

A soft-spoken woman who looked to be in her 20s pleaded guilty to allowing two minors under her control to possess or consume liquor.

Another young woman pleaded not guilty to OUI, driving to endanger, criminal negligence and endangering the welfare of a child by having a passenger in the vehicle who was under 21. She also was scheduled a dispositional conference in April and was told she was released on personal recognizance bond and could be subject to random search and testing. She asked what that entailed.

“They could stop you, pull you over, come to your house and say, ‘We’re going to search you and test you,'” Benson said. “So don’t have any illegal drugs.”

It was all very orderly, this arraignment day. Benson explained everything carefully and asked each person, whom he addressed respectfully as “sir” or “ma’am,” whether he or she understood this and that.

It occurred to me that it was a pretty tough thing to lose your driver’s license during the holidays and have to pay hundreds of dollars in fines that could be used to buy Christmas presents.

Beyond that, I opined that these were the lucky ones, these regular, respectable-looking people who got caught driving while under the influence and had to face a judge in front of their peers.

Maybe they learned a valuable lesson and wouldn’t do it again. Maybe, just maybe, they dodged a bullet by being stopped before they crashed into a tree and were killed — or killed someone else.

In any case, I thought about how critical it is that, with all the parties and celebrations going on at the holidays, we take heed and not become a statistic. Whether dead or alive.

I wondered how many people statewide are convicted of OUI, so I contacted Kristen Schulze Muszynski, director of communications for the Secretary of State. She said that in 2016, 3,837 people in Maine were convicted of OUI.

I also got in touch with Steve McCausland, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, and learned some more frightening statistics.

This year so far, 165 people have died in highway accidents in Maine. In 2014, 131 died and 26 of those driving the vehicles had a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 or above. In 2015, 156 died, and 39 had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or above. In 2016, 160 died and 39 were at 0.08 or higher. The average age of those who died last year was 38.

“We could be headed for our most deadly year on the highways since 2007, when we ended with 183, or 2006, when we ended with 188,” McCausland said.

Further, his stats show that last year, there were five Christmas holiday fatalities in Maine.

That’s way too many — and I propose we can do better than that.

In fact, let’s shoot for zero this year.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 29 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.