Drivers who take to the road while inebriated pose a grave risk to other drivers on the road. No one can credibly disagree with that.
However, a bill working its way through the Ohio General Assembly — House Bill 465, “Annie’s Law” — is not the right approach to combating this menace and is akin to trying to kill a housefly with a shotgun.
The law is named for 36-year-old Annie Rooney, of Chillicothe, who was killed in July 2013 when she was struck by drunken driver, a man who was previously arrested for drunken driving three times and convicted only once.
The bill would require first-time offenders to use an ignition interlock device in their vehicles. An ignition interlock device measures the blood-alcohol content of a driver. If the driver’s BAC is above 0.025 percent, the car will not start. If the bill passes, Ohio would become the 23rd state to require the device after the first conviction.
Under current law, the use of an ignition interlock device is required when a person is convicted twice within a six-year period and only if a judge so orders.
While well-meaning and not all bad, the bill has a few problems.
The law is extremely punitive. The defendant must bear the cost of the ignition interlock device, which can be about $80 a month and is usually installed for at least six months or even 12 months. Additionally, many rural areas do not have a vendor who can install and calibrate the device, which has to be done periodically, sometimes as often as once every 30 days. This would require a long drive to the nearest large town. This law, then, will disproportionately impact the poor.
The law would also require the devices for those who plead to a lesser non-alcohol-related offense. This, coupled with the high cost, is going to push more cases to trial, costing the state more money.
It is also casting a wide net as the vast majority of those charged with drunken driving do not come back into the system.
Annie’s Law comes at a time when drunken driving in Ohio is on the decline. During the past 10 years, Ohio has seen an 18.7 percent drop in drunken driving-related fatalities. This is a trend seen nationally. Since 1982, drunken driving fatalities on our nation’s roadways have decreased 51 percent. That number is 78 percent when considering persons under 21.
Yet, the National Transportation Safety Board and other proponents of ignition interlock devices, fail to mention that trend when claiming there has been a decline in states that use the devices for first-time offenders.
Finally, the state’s standard of 0.08 percent BAC is unnecessarily low given that most fatal accidents occur with drivers well above that. For example, of all the alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in Ohio in 2012, 77.4 percent involved drivers with a BAC of 0.15 or higher. This means the casual drinker, who might have had one or two at dinner, could face severe consequences if caught.
The state’s drunken driving laws are already fairly severe for a first-time offender. They include license suspensions, heavy fines, license reinstatement fees and increased insurance premiums as well as jail time or a weekend class. Do we need to add to the crushing burdens placed on those who simply made a one-time mistake?
Fortunately, Ohio’s lawmakers are still modifying the law. If they insist on using the ignition interlock device for first-time offenders, they should limit it to those with BACs above 0.14 percent.