Rooney family a driving force behind proposed changeMar. 7, 2014
Written by Jessie Balmert
The family of a beloved Chillicothe attorney killed by a drunken driver wants everyone convicted of driving impaired to have their breath tested before they drive.
Ohio law requires ignition interlock devices for repeat drunken drivers, but the family of Annie Rooney wants the device installed for first-time offenders as well. The device requires drivers to blow into a breathalyzer, which calculates blood-alcohol concentration, and will prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver tests higher than the preset limit, usually 0.025 BAC.
“It’s like having an electronic probation officer in the front seat,” said Doug Scoles, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Ohio.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, and Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, on Thursday, is called Annie’s Law in memory of 36-year-old Annie Rooney, who died after colliding with drunken driver Shira Seymour on July 4 in Ross County. Last month, Seymour was sentenced to the maximum eight years in prison for Rooney’s death.
“This is an incremental step that will save lives,” said Annie’s father, Rick Rooney. “We’ve worked very hard to move it forward.”
The Rooneys have worked with legislators, including family friend Terry Johnson, to craft the bill since last fall. The proposed language would allow convicted drunken drivers to choose between using the ignition interlock device or not driving during their six-month suspension, Scoles said.
Judges also could require ignition interlock devices for people seeking driving privileges while awaiting trial, Scoles said. The bill would remove the mandatory 15-day license suspension for people who use ignition interlock devices.
Offenders would rent the devices for about $2.50 a day or $500 for a six-month probation, said Frank Harris, MADD’s state legislative affairs manager. People who can’t afford the fee could have it paid through the indigent fund, which contains fees from people convicted of operating a vehicle while under the influence.
MADD officials hope the incentive of driving, even with a device, will outweigh a suspended license. The device teaches people with alcohol problems how to drive responsibly, Scoles said.
The devices are not easily tricked. Many have cameras to record who is blowing into the device and require additional tests after the vehicle is started, Harris said.
Probation officers, who are in charge of monitoring the devices, support the effort to reduce drunken driving, but are concerned about the added work of overseeing more devices, checking equipment and investigating additional violations, said Craig Barry, president of the Ohio Chief Probation Officers Association.
Last year, the Ohio Highway Patrol cited more than 24,000 people with operating a vehicle while under the influence, but only 2,407 individuals were using ignition interlock devices in July. If devices are used for first-time offenders, those numbers could skyrocket.
Another concern is whether county indigent funds would have enough money to pay for all first-time offenders who cannot afford the device, Barry said.
Tim Huey, a Columbus attorney who specializes in OVI defense, said the expense for drivers will far outweigh the benefit of catching people who are unlikely to reoffend during the six-month probation. The devices can be prone to malfunction as well, he said.
“It’s an awful lot of cost and inconvenience for the window of opportunity for it to work,” Huey said.
However, people using ignition interlock devices were about 67 percent less likely to be rearrested than drivers with suspended licenses, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review of 15 studies. The devices are a deterrent for the more than 50 percent of convicted drunk drivers who continue to drive even with suspended licenses, according to MADD.
“So many go out and drive anyway,” Rick Rooney said. “We view this as a public health catastrophe.”
In December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advised states to adopt its model on ignition interlock devices, which included use for first-time offenders.
Twenty states allow ignition interlock devices for first-time drunk drivers, according to MADD. Another 14 states require devices for first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol concentration ranging from 0.1 to 0.18. Michigan requires devices for people with a high BAC and Indiana recently proposed a law similar to Annie’s Law, Harris said.
“Ohio is getting a little behind the ball by having a completely optional law,” Harris said.
Making Ohio roads a little safer will help the Rooney family honor their daughter, who was universally liked and respected, Scherer said.
“This is a small way for us to remember her and help have some little bit of good come out of this tragedy,” he said.