Proposed law aims to prevent drunk driving


Photo illustration courtesy of LifeSafer Inc.

A new bill from the Ohio House of Representatives Judiciary Committee could require first-time drunk driving offenders to have a Breathalyzer device called an ignition interlock installed in their vehicle. To start their vehicles, offenders would have to blow into the device and test negative for alcohol.

The bill, known as House Bill 469, or “Annie’s Law,” has the potential to save lives, but its final Ohio Judiciary Committee hearing was postponed last month after the Ohio State Bar Association and Ohio Judicial Conference outlined their oppositions to the bill that would affect state and local government.

Ohio law currently requires first-time OVI offenders to have their licenses suspended for six months to three years, with possibility of the judge issuing special driving privileges to work or school. Drunk driving offences, known by the acronym OVI for operating a vehicle impaired, include DUI, DWI or OMVI charges. Second and repeat drunk driving offenders within six years of their last offenses are required to have an ignition interlock device.

“Drunk driving’s a problem in Kent, and we get a lot of it here,” said Lt. Jim Prusha of the Kent Police Department.

In Kent, OVI arrests have been sporadic with 228 arrests in 2010, and the highest number of OVI arrests 2011 with 302. This year, 126 OVI arrests and 20 accidents resulting from driving under the influence of alcohol have been reported to Kent police since Oct. 1. 

In July, Kent had a suspected OVI related fatality that is still under investigation.

“If we have one death, one fatality I should say, from drunk driving, that’s one too many,” said Michquel Penn, community resource officer for the Kent State University Police Department.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 10,322 fatalities from crashes involving a drunk driver in 2012, which made up 31 percent of total traffic fatalities that year.

Creating “Annie’s Law”

Representatives Gary Scherer (R-Circleville) and Terry Johnson (R-McDermott), the bills sponsors, presented “Annie’s Law” in March 2014 in response to the death of Annie Rooney who was struck and killed by a drunk driver on July 4, 2013 while she traveled on U.S. Route 50 outside of Chillicothe, Ohio.

Annie was a 36-year-old domestic violence prosecutor and Chillicothe resident. The woman who killed Annie was a repeat drunk driving offender and was sentenced to eight years in prison after she pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide. The incident occurred in Rep. Scherer’s district.

“I think the public has a right when you drive anywhere, home from work or the store whatever, to not be killed by somebody because they were drunk and they were driving,” said Doug Scoles, Ohio’s state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

MADD has been attempting to get ignition interlock legislation passed since 2006, Scoles said. Following Annie’s death, the Rooney family reached out to MADD for help. The organization told them ignition interlocks were the best way to fight drunk driving, Annie’s father Dr. Richard Rooney said.

The Rooney family also contacted Rep. Johnson, who knew the family, and Rep. Scherer, who agreed to sponsor the bill. Since Annie’s death, the family has continued to share its experience to support the bill.

“The hardest part is we miss her so much,” Dr. Rooney said. “And every time I give a speech or every time we go up and do these things, we have to relive everything. And then we come home and we are very sad, and that’s the hardest part. And on the other hand, the good part is we’ve met a lot of wonderful people.”

Annie’s Law has also been endorsed by Nationwide Insurance, AAA division in Ohio, MADD and the Ohio State Medical Association.

According to the Center for Disease Control, ignition interlocks reduced drunk driving repeat offenses by 67 percent. Ohio would be the 25th state to pass an ignition interlock law for first-time offenders.

Other states that have employed the devices have seen a dramatic decrease in drunk driving and drunk driving-related fatalities. Drunk driving fatalities have dropped by 43 percent in Arizona, 42 percent in Oregon and 33 percent in Virginia after the 2008 all-offender interlock laws passed, according to MADD’s website.

Ohio’s drunk driving offenses are still on the rise with the Ohio State Highway Patrol reporting 19,077 OVI enforcements in 2014, an increase of 628 from 2013. 

Judicial discretion controversy state and local

Despite statistics supporting the potential lifesaving benefits of ignition interlocks, the Ohio Judicial Conference and the Ohio State Bar Association oppose factors of the bill not focused on OVI statistics.

“As you might suspect, it is a fairly controversial bill,” said Alexandra Adams, Rep. Scherer’s legislative aid. “Most people know someone who’s had a DUI conviction, so this legislation is going to impact hundreds to thousands of (Ohioans) potentially. So it’s definitely not legislation to be taken lightly, and I think everyone involved, all the interested parties involved realize that.”

Todd Book, director of policy and government affairs for the Ohio Bar Association, said in a letter to the Ohio Judiciary Committee that the bill would reduce judicial discretion in OVI cases, which is the judge’s ability to make decisions with fairness rather than a specific rule or law.

It also outlined other concerns such as an increase in trials and license suspension hearings that draw out the criminal justice process. The letter also expressed Butler’s opposition to using a driver’s license as a punishment tool and said the mandatory interlock restrictions would be a burden.

“We don’t want anymore people to die and this is a safety device not a punishment device,” Dr. Rooney said.

Scoles and Dr. Rooney also said they disagree with judicial discretion being an issue.

Penn said she sees both pros and cons of the bill, but said enforcement of it case-by-case could present problems.

“You have to look at individual circumstances,” Penn said. “Maybe this is an individual who made a mistake. First time and fortunately didn’t cause a fatality or anything like that. They are going through their normal motions of the punishment for violating the law; however, they may be in a family sharing one car. Having a device like (ignition interlocks) may interfere with things like that. It’s really a case-by-case thing.”

TV2’s Vivian Feke reports on “Annie’s Law”:

Pitfalls and advantages of ignition interlocks

An ignition interlock is a Breathalyzer connected to the ignition of a vehicle that will only turn on if the offender passes the Breathalyzer test. The idea is that offenders will be unable to drive drunk with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher because their cars will not start if they fail the test.

“There are unfortunately a lot of pitfalls with ignition interlocks,” said Judge Barbara Oswick of the Portage County Municipal Court.“…People who have a serious problem (with drinking and driving), if they want to drive, they are going to find a way to drive whether they have a license, whether they have a car titled in their name.”

Oswick said she has encountered offenders having ignition interlocks installed on “beater” cars that they don’t drive, but have proof of interlock installation while they drive another car without it. Another offender once had a sibling take the test for him.

Elizabeth Gambone, the regional public policy director of the ignition interlock provider Lifesafer Inc., said offenders are trained to blow a certain way into the device when it is installed. The device also requires rolling retests, when an offender blows into the device throughout the drive often starting at 5 minutes and then 10 minutes. Devices with GPS and cameras can also be installed to ensure the driver is sober and not having someone else taking the test.

Oswick said she prefers using an ankle device called SCRAM (secure continuous remote alcohol monitor) that monitors blood alcohol content continuously when sentencing repeat OVI offenders.

“I like the idea of SCRAM because our orders are ‘You cannot drink while this matter is pending,’ “ Oswick said. “So someone basically is walking around with a breathalyzer on 24 hours a day.”

Another disadvantage to ignition interlocks in Portage County is monitoring results can take a month, while SCRAM results are sent daily, Oswick said. Portage County also uses SCRAM devices because about 180 of them were purchased using surplus money from the Indigent Alcohol Monitoring Fund, which gives monitoring devices to offender who can’t afford them.

“I really don’t care what the system, is whether its ignition interlock or SCRAM,” Oswick said. “Nothing’s perfect, but something is better than nothing, and if it’s going to save a life, it’s worth trying.”

Ignition interlock costs

Oswick said offenders in Portage County pay about $2,000 each for SCRAM devices with a daily monitoring fee of about $5, which is  lower due to the large number of devices the courts have purchased.

Offenders would pay a $70 to $150 fee for ignition interlock installation and a $60 to $90 monthly fee for monitoring, maintenance and calibration, according to the bill. For LifeSaver devices,offenders pay $70 per month, which can increase to $80 if GPS monitoring or cameras are installed.

Offenders would pay an additional $2.50 court fee to fund the Ohio Habitual OVI Offender Registry, according to the bill’s local and fiscal impact statement.

County and municipal indigent funds would pay or partially pay for the device if the court declares an offender indigent, or unable to afford the device, according to the bill.

The bill’s financial statement also says that it is uncertain if local funds will be sufficient to cover the demanded increase.

Oswick said Portage County already receives adequate funding.

While the judiciary committee works to make final changes to the bill, its fifth and final hearing in committee is still pending.

“Hopefully we are able to iron out all those issues and get the bill voted on and start moving through the process,” said Adams, Rep. Scherer’s legislative aid.

Vivian Feke from TV2 contributed to the reporting.

Contact Carley Hull at [email protected].