Tuesday, December 30, 2003

New law brands drunken drivers

On Jan. 1, Ohio violators will have to hit the road with scarlet-lettered plates

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

New Year's Eve partiers who drink and drive are more likely to be caught and punished now than in years past, police say.

And if they get caught after ringing in the New Year, they face a new Ohio law that carries a public punishment.

chart "I think it's tougher and tougher for people to break the law and go out and drive intoxicated - and rightfully so," Col. Richard K. Jones, Butler County sheriff's chief deputy, said Monday.

Increased police patrols, traffic-safety checkpoints, a stricter blood-alcohol limit, video cameras in cruisers and cellular-phone users all help catch impaired drivers, Jones said.

In addition, Ohio residents snared after midnight Wednesday face a new, more public punishment: special red-lettered drunken-driving license plates.

Under a law that takes effect Thursday, even first-time offenders seeking limited driving privileges - to and from work, for instance - must display the plates on vehicles they own until normal driving privileges are restored.

Although the plates have been an option for judges to impose since 1967, they had rarely been used.

This goes on top of other punishment.

Some defense lawyers predict the former DUI (Driving Under the Influence) law, now called OVI (Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence), will face legal challenges because it lacks enforcement specifics and includes some vague language.

But other experts say the law, even if it needs some fine-tuning, provides another means to discourage drunken driving and prevent alcohol-related traffic crashes.

Andrea Rehkamp, executive director of the Southwestern Ohio Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, hopes the new plates will deter offenders from driving drunk again.

"And maybe it will serve as a type of a warning to other motorists on the roadways," she said, "so maybe they'll be more careful around that person who has the special license plate."

While people who drink alcohol at private parties are expected to find designated drivers, Rehkamp said revelers who realize they have overindulged at taverns or other public venues within the Interstate 275 beltway may obtain a free "Care Cab" taxi ride home by dialing 768-FREE (3733).

The program, co-sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA-Cincinnati, is available for 30 hours - from 6 p.m. Wednesday, and all day and night New Year's Day. Since the program's inception seven years ago, 917 people have taken advantage, including 167 last year, Rehkamp said.

From Dec. 19 through Jan. 4, many Greater Cincinnati police agencies are participating in "You Drink & Drive. You Lose" campaign, an education and enforcement campaign sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That program helps coordinate and fund additional patrols and traffic-safety checkpoints.

The national campaign's goal is to reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities nationwide from last year's 17,419 to 11,000 by 2005. In Ohio last year, there were 482 alcohol-related traffic deaths out of 1,417 road deaths, according to state figures.

The good news: Evidence suggests enforcement efforts are working, said Sgt. Rick Zwayer of the Ohio State Highway Patrol's Columbus headquarters.

So far this year, there have been 874 traffic fatalities in Ohio, Zwayer said.

Last weekend, the Hamilton County DUI Task Force stopped 312 cars in Sharonville; police issued 45 seat-belt citations and made four drunken driving arrests.

A sampling of other police enforcement action plans:

Kentucky State Police: Increased patrols and some traffic-safety checkpoints (though none in Northern Kentucky). Citizens may report suspected impaired drivers to a toll-free hot line: (800) 222-5555.

Ohio State Highway Patrol: Increased patrols in high-traffic areas statewide, at discretion of local post commanders. Batavia, Hamilton and Lebanon posts had no checkpoints set as of Monday.

Dearborn County Sheriff's Office: With influenza hitting deputies hard, plans for a sobriety checkpoint are in limbo. But Sheriff David Lusby still promises beefed-up patrols.

"Task-force operations are geared to attack the problem year-round," said West Chester Township Police Sgt. Barry Walker, the Butler group's coordinator.

"The alcohol problem isn't restricted to holidays or big festival times. ... We try to keep coverage throughout the year."


E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com

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