Wednesday, March 03, 1999

E N Q U I R E R   E D I T O R I A L

DUI: Zero tolerance for repeat offenders

        Call last weekend's Clermont County crash that killed a New Richmond couple and their 11-year-old a sad, tragic, horrific event. But don't call it an accident, insists Andrea Rehkamp.

        “An accident is something non-preventable,” says Ms. Rehkamp, executive director of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Cincinnati chapter. “This was simply a tragedy waiting to happen.”

        Rodney Shannon, his wife Tammy Jo and their son Christopher were killed when a large pickup truck struck their smaller truck Friday night.

        The other driver was Charles Gumbert of New Richmond, according to police, who believe alcohol was involved.

        Mr. Gumbert has four previous drunken driving convictions since 1983, and was driving Friday night with a suspended license.

        “You can only do so much,” Ohio State Police Sgt. Jack Tibbs told The Enquirer. “If they're out, meaning not incarcerated or anything, they've got access to vehicles.”

        Indeed, says Ms. Rehkamp, studies show that more than 75 percent of drivers who lose their licenses to DUI (driving under the influence) convictions continue to drive anyway.

        Without prejudging Mr. Gumbert's case, it's fair to say that this tragedy — plus two other weekend fatalities said to be alcohol-related — raises questions about how we deal with DUI offenders.

        Ohio's law is tougher than most, thanks to a bill Sen. Bruce Johnson, R-Columbus, sponsored in 1996. It made a fourth DUI within a six-year period a felony, and stiffened penalties across the board.

        But where Mr. Gumbert is concerned, last weekend's crash would not rise to a felony in itself, as he has only one DUI conviction since 1989.

        Clearly, some tougher measures are needed for repeat DUI offenders.

        “What it's going to take is for everyone to realize that drunken driving is serious,” Ms. Rehkamp says.

        Even though alcohol-related traffic deaths have been cut by more than half in Ohio and the nation during the past decade or so, a hard core of repeat offenders continues to cause mayhem. And it's no small group: About 2,500 Ohioans have eight or more DUI convictions.

        Part of the problem, Ms. Rehkamp believes, is that many in the justice system still regard drunken drivers as non-violent offenders. “The Shannon family died in a very violent way,” she says. “These DUI offenders create more violence than many other offenders we keep in jail.”

        Mr. Johnson thinks it's plenty serious. “There's a certain amount of frustration,” says the author of Ohio's felony DUI and graduated license laws. “Despite what we've done, there's a large number of people left who don't pay attention. They are in desperate need of, one, treatment and, two, a reality check.”

        Ms. Rehkamp's son was killed while riding in a car driven by a drunken teen; Mr. Johnson has a close friend who lost a son to a drunken driver.

        The legislator has introduced S.B. 22, that would essentially double the penalties for those convicted of DUI offenses with a blood alcohol level of 0.17 percent or above; normal DUI rules apply at a level of 0.10 or above.

        “The accident rate goes up dramatically at 0.17 percent,” Mr. Johnson says. “More than half of alcohol-related crashes are at 0.17-plus. We hope that if you double the minimum penalties, especially for second and third offenses, people are going to think twice.”

        That follows a trend in other states to focus on the habitual, heavy drinkers who cause the bulk of the worst crashes. Kentucky, for example, recently imposed mandatory first-offense jail sentences and third-offense felonies for drivers caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.18 or above.

        It makes far more sense than the federal government's push to impose a lower, 0.08 percent limit on the states, which would only serve to flood prison systems and would have far less effect on fatalities.

        But states could do more. Ms. Rehkamp advocates a zero-tolerance policy for repeat offenders: Anyone convicted of DUI would be subject to a lower blood-alcohol standard for subsequent offenses — 0.05 percent or lower.

        When the state of Maine adopted that policy, she says, deaths caused by repeat DUIs dropped 25 percent in six years, while the comparable figure for the rest of New England rose by 46 percent.

        She also would like to see repeat offenders barred from owning or registering cars in their own names, and special license tags (which already are allowed by Ohio law) imposed on repeat DUIs.

        If Mr. Johnson had his choice, every repeat offender could wind up in jail. But there's a political reality here: It simply would cost the state too much. More than a third of Ohio's DUI drivers are repeat offenders.

        A new, privately operated state DUI prison about to open near Grafton should help, he says. “It's a great thing, probably the best in the country for alcohol-related social problems. People will get the finest treatment available.”

        Ohio must do more to protect the public from hard-core drunken drivers, Mr. Johnson says. “They are causing death on the highway. We need to get them off the highway.”

        Last weekend's deaths ought to give Ohio legislators extra incentive to pass his bill — then take punishment of frequent DUIs a few steps further.

        It's a solution waiting to happen.


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