COLUMBUS – Want to drive after a drunken driving offense? Just blow into this breath-testing device.
First-time offenders convicted of operating a vehicle while under the influence could ask a judge to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicles in exchange for a shorter driving suspension, under a proposal passed 84-5 by the Ohio House Wednesday.
Here’s how the device works: a driver exhales into it before starting the car. The vehicle won’t start if there is alcohol on the driver’s breath.
The bill, championed by Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, is called “Annie’s Law” for Annie Rooney, a Chillicothe lawyer killed in 2013 by a drunken driver. Her family first pushed for the change in 2014, but opposition from Ohio’s judges killed the bill.
“I wish we could have done it sooner. I wish the bill had even more teeth,” said Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott in Scioto County, a family friend of the Rooneys.
The new version is weaker than its predecessor, which would have required breath-test devices installed in every first-time offender’s car. Judges can already order ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders, like the driver who killed Rooney. But the proposal does provide incentives to drivers who seek out the option: judges could reduce offenders’ drivers license suspensions from one year to six months. The bill would increase possible driving suspensions from six months to three years to one year to five years.
Those caught driving impaired would pay for the device and its installation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimated the equipment costs between $70 and $150 to install and $60 to $80 per month to monitor and calibrate. Those too poor to pay would receive a reduced rate.
If passed, Ohio would become the 28th state to allow ignition interlock devices for first-time drunken drivers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports requiring interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers reduces repeat drunken driving by an average of 67 percent. Because the device would not be required in Ohio, any change would be less dramatic, but advocates say any increase in ignition interlock devices will help.
The bill would also eliminate yellow license plates, known as “party plates,” that certain convicted drivers were required to display. There was little evidence that the plates worked to deter drinking and driving, Scherer said.
Another change would extend the period of time that prosecutors examine to increase penalties for repeat drunken driving offenders from six years to 10 years. More than four convictions in that time period would mean an automatic felony.
The proposal heads to the Ohio Senate, which isn’t expected to vote on the bill until after the November election. Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, is working to get it passed before the end of of the year.
For the Rooney family, these changes are Annie’s legacy. She worked as a lawyer in the Cincinnati area and a prosecutor in Montana and Chillicothe before starting her own law practice. She painted, rode mountain bikes, herded bison and earned an award for “actress of the year” for performing in a high school play.
Her family believes that when they meet her in heaven, she will have two questions, her father, Dr. Richard Rooney, said Wednesday.
“We know that she will ask us, ‘What happened to me?’ and ‘What did you do about it?’ Well, what we did about it is Annie’s Law,” he said.