Tragedy inspires siblings to advocate for  OVI law change.

Written by Jona Ison, Gazette Staff Writer
Published Sept 8, 2013

CHILLICOTHE — A Saturday event to honor an attorney killed in a July 4 drunken driving crash not only provided comfort to her family but publicly connected her death with the Mother’s Against Drunk Driving cause.

The Chillicothe Fitness & Racquet Club hosted an open house in Annie Rooney’s memory, and proceeds from the various activities were donated to MADD. The continued outpouring of support since Annie’s death has been a source of comfort for her family.

“The people help us. The fact that they cared so deeply for her,” said her mother, Carole Rooney.

Her father, Rick Rooney, said they never realized the scope of effect Annie had on people during her 36 years and doubt she realized it either. The Rooneys receive some kind of contact daily about Annie, even after two months. For example, they received a letter the other day about a donation given in Annie’s name by a running club to the Catholic Inter-City Schools Education Fund.

“They lift us up and carry us along. … We’re not by ourselves. We’re in a much bigger boat than we ever dreamed,” Rick said.

The tragic loss of their sister has motivated Kate Rooney Lyaker, 33, and Walt Rooney, 43, to begin networking and pushing for changes to Ohio laws concerning impaired drivers.

“Within a week of her death, we were, on a walk crying and we said, ‘I will do anything it takes to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone again,’” Kate said.

Charges are pending in the crash, but an Ohio Highway Patrol report released last month indicated blood alcohol test results show the driver of the other vehicle, Shira Seymour, of Bainbridge, was nearly twice the legal limit. Seymour had two prior charges of impaired driving that were reduced to physical control.

Last year statewide, there were 494 people killed in an impaired-driving related crash — about 44 percent of all crashes in 2012 involved impaired drivers, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol.

“There are states that do better than we do, and there are concrete steps to get the numbers down,” Walt said.

During the past two months, Kate and Walt have been meeting and setting up appointments with key players in the impaired-driving arena such as the state and national directors of MADD and the CEO of a leading interlock device manufacturer. Kate said they also have plans to meet with Gov. John Kasich later this month.

Kate and Walt are convinced the answer is following the path of 20 other states and making ignition interlock devices mandatory for anyone convicted of a drunk-driving offense, even first-time offenders.

An ignition interlock is a device that can be installed in a vehicle and prevents operation without a passing test result from its breathalyzer. The system also is set up to periodically do checks while the car is operating. Altough judges are permitted by law to order defendants use a certified device as part of community control sanctions, it is discretionary.

“It doesn’t interfere with their lives. … They just can’t drink and drive,” Kate said.

She and Walt cite a review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was released in 2011 and recommended more widespread use of the devices for everyone convicted.

The CDC reviewed 15 scientific studies on ignition interlocks in which researchers found that rearrest rates for those with an interlock device decreased by a median 67 percent relative to those with suspended licenses.

Kate, who has been a prosecutor in Delaware, said she understands the want to punish through license suspensions, but the fact is, people still drive.

“We’re relying on a person’s judgment, which we see has failed,” she said.

The Ohio Highway Patrol alone has issued 470 driving under suspension citations in 2013, which is already eight above what they issued in all of 2012.

“This bill has been attempted in Ohio for almost six years without success. … If this had been passed, we wouldn’t have gone through this,” Walt said.

Earlier this year, the Ohio Judicial Conference’s Traffic Law and Procedure Committee heard about a meeting with those interested in the interlock bill, including Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township. The suggestion was for first offenders to be required to have an interlock device and allow those convicted and subject to a license suspension to obtain driving privileges with an interlock device.

The committee is responsible for analyzing pending legislation with a judicial impact on traffic laws and procedures and reviewing issues and proposals of relevance to judges. It makes recommendations to improve Ohio Revised Code, Ohio Traffic Rules, and relevant Supreme Court Rules of Superintendence.

According to February minutes, the committee — which consists of 17 judges from throughout the state — issued concerns including that indigent offenders had an equal opportunity to get the device, that there would be repercussions for violating the interlock and that the devices only detect alcohol, not drugs. The committee also pointed to ripple effects to existing laws, such as the automatic driver’s license suspension for people who refuse to take a test.

As Kate and Walt move forward with their advocacy, Kate said they intend to form a “Team Annie” coalition of lawyers and judges who will volunteer to craft and oversee an interlock bill they intend to call “Annie’s Law.”

“Of course I’m angry, but I’m cheerful and optimistic,” Kate said. “I’m Team Annie, and we’re going to get Annie’s Law passed. We want people to be safe and sober.”

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