Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Traffic penalties increase

Ohio crackdown includes construction-zone crashes

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Highway workers behind flimsy orange cones and state troopers whose hats are sent flying by passing cars will have some added protection under a law that went into effect Tuesday.

The law adds mandatory jail time for drivers causing death or injury in marked construction zones and lengthens sentences for aggravated vehicular homicide if the victim is a law enforcement officer or the driver has three previous drunken-driving convictions.

Gov. Bob Taft signed the bill Tuesday in front of new signs that the law requires to warn motorists of increased penalties in construction zones. Taft, a Republican, was surrounded by State Highway Patrol troopers, highway workers and the widow of a trooper killed by a drunken driver. It takes effect immediately.

"We need to send a very strong message across the state of Ohio that we are not going to tolerate drunk driving, we are not going to tolerate speeding and hazardous driving in construction zones, we are not going to tolerate actions against our law enforcement officers," Taft said.

Lawmakers also inserted a provision increasing penalties for firing a gun at a roadway because of the string of highway shootings along the city's south outerbelt.

Before, killing a construction worker, pedestrian or other motorist in a construction zone was a minor misdemeanor that might bring no jail time, said Angela Van Fossen, legislative affairs director for the Ohio Contractors Association.

"This was an enforcement tool we really needed," she said.

Rep. Jim Hughes, a Columbus Republican, said he wrote the bill in part because of the death of Trooper Frank Vazquez, killed in 2001 in a traffic stop on Interstate 270 in Columbus.

David Dye was sentenced to eight years in prison on a vehicular homicide charge, and six more months for his fifth drunken driving conviction.

Under the new law, he would have been sentenced to 161/2 years - an added five years for killing an officer and three more years for having at least three drunken driving convictions.

Troopers have started approaching pulled-over cars from the passenger side because so many drivers are ignoring the state law to slow down and allow a one-lane berth for a stopped emergency vehicle, said Lt. Ken Ward, commander of the West Jefferson Post.

Twenty-four people, including three highway workers, were killed in about 6,500 crashes in state construction zones last year, the Ohio Department of Transportation reported. Another 1,500 people were injured.

The law increases the severity of the misdemeanors for killing or injuring someone if it occurs in a construction zone, requiring mandatory jail terms and increased fines.

It also expands the definition of aggravated vehicular homicide to specify reckless operation in a construction zone. The charge before simply applied to driving "recklessly," and the added definition makes it easier to prove, said Capt. John Born, a patrol spokesman.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, questioned the provision on shooting at a roadway because it could apply to hunters, target shooters or others who don't realize there's a road nearby.

Changes in the law

Gov. Bob Taft signed a law Tuesday that increases the penalties for drivers who cause injury or death after three past drunken-driving convictions, who kill a law enforcement officer or who cause injury or death in a construction zone.

Among other changes, the bill:

• Adds a mandatory five-year extension to any prison sentence for a motorist convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide when the victim is a law enforcement officer.

• Adds a mandatory three-year extension to any prison sentence for a motorist convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide after three prior convictions for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

• Imposes a mandatory 15-day jail term for misdemeanor charges of causing death while speeding in a construction zone, or seven days for causing injury. Both have a maximum jail time of six months.

• Expands the definitions of aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide and vehicular assault to specify the offense includes killing or injuring someone while driving in a construction zone with warning signs posted. Supporters say the definition makes it easier to prove an aggravated vehicular homicide charge, which carries a 1- to 5-year prison term that increases to a 2- to 8-year sentence if the person has a suspended license or past traffic-related assault, manslaughter or homicide conviction.

• Increases penalties for firing a gun on or over a public road, from a misdemeanor to a felony in some cases.

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