Ohio driving laws fall behind

CLEVELAND – Ohio has made several changes to its drunken driving laws in recent years but still isn’t up to speed with federal standards for reducing repeat offenses.

It’s one of 11 states lagging guidelines that call for mandatory license suspensions, jail time, treatment programs and ignition interlock devices or vehicle immobilization, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“There needs to be stiffer penalties for repeat drunk driving,” said Evan DaSilva, a college student who survived a fatal crash in March caused by man with 11 prior drunken driving convictions.

The crash created outrage in northeast Ohio where a number of repeat offenders have made headlines this year.

Ohio has passed laws increasing jail time, making a fourth drunken driving offense within six years or a sixth within 20 years a felony.

“We have revised the state drunk driving laws extensively. They now occupy pages and pages of the revised code,” said state Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican. “Let’s let the judges understand the current law before we rewrite it again.”

Like most of the 11 states that fail to meet federal standards, Ohio lacks a vehicle control requirement that all motor vehicles owned by a repeat offender be immobilized, impounded or equipped with an ignition interlock system.

In New Mexico, interlock devices are required for even first-time offenders. The state has more interlocks installed per conviction and per capita than any other state.

Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, called New Mexico’s law a breakthrough.

He said the organization will be lobbying for interlocks in the next legislative session with a focus on strengthening laws in several states, including Ohio.

“What we’re pushing for is that on first offenses after a brief hard suspension the offender would get his work permit sooner if he has interlock,” Hurley said.

The interlock device requires a driver to blow into it before starting the car. If alcohol is detected, the car won’t start.

“It is a 24-hour a day probation officer that sits in the front of your car,” said Richard Roth, a research consultant for Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation, who has studied the effects of interlocks in New Mexico.

Offenders who have installed interlocks in New Mexico have a 60 percent lower repeat rate than those who do not install them, said Roth, a Santa Fe resident who lobbied for the state to use the devices.

Seitz favors the idea of interlocks, which are an option for judges in Ohio but are seldom used. Cost, however, is a factor.

In New Mexico, they cost $70 to install and about $70 a month for service. The offender pays for the interlock and indigent drivers can receive help from a state fund.

Parma Heights Capt. Garry Lauter, whose department recently arrested a woman with six prior drunken driving convictions, said the interlocks need to be used more and that judges need to be more consistent in sentencing.

“It’s frustrating to some extent,” Lauter said. “In a perfect world we’d have enough jail space to put people there so they can’t get back out there.”