An old problem in Ohio needs new examination and committed resolution. Lives depend on it. The problem: people who pile up repeat drunken driving offenses with impunity. It's frightening when law enforcement officials continue to arrest irresponsible louts with DUI convictions numbering in double digits.
The situation acquires new relevance in view of the state's new lower legal threshold for drunken driving, 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, down from the old standard, 0.10 percent.
That's a good start, but Ohio needs to make repeat violations hurt.
Apparently, many of those who still insist on drinking and driving circumvent DUI convictions by refusing breath or chemical tests when arrested again and again for drunken driving.
Without solid evidence of their levels of intoxication, accused offenders - especially those in large metropolitan areas - may be dispensed with in the legal system with “administrative license suspensions.” Trouble is, that does little to stop those who habitually drive while drunk.
Consider a few incidents that occurred in May alone:
A state trooper from Sandusky arrested a driver who had already been stopped 16 previous times for driving under the influence.
A Delhi Township police officer arrested another driver for his 14th DUI.
A trooper from the Circleville Post stopped a driver for his 10th DUI offense.
Fortunately, no one got in the way of the drunken drivers weaving all over the road before they were pulled over by law enforcement. But who's to say those arrested aren't already back on the road creating more risk? Obviously multiple DUI arrests don't discourage them from repeating their dangerous behavior.
Regrettably, current state law for DUI arrests and convictions actually seems to favor the drunken driver, giving offenders generous second chances to behave. If nobody is killed or hurt in a driver's first three DUI convictions, the defendant can get off with only misdemeanor charges. Driving privileges may be revoked, but nothing physically stops an offender from getting back behind the wheel and driving off to the nearest tavern.
Only after the fourth DUI conviction can a driver be charged with a felony and only if the fourth conviction occurred within a six-year period. How many breaks are these people entitled to?
Prison sentences are possible but they're imposed at the discretion of judges who often dispatch DUI cases with penalties nowhere near the maximum jail terms.
In Columbus, legislative measures are being discussed to target repeat DUIs with mandatory prison sentences and no time restrictions on accumulative DUI convictions. It is imperative they not die on the vine like other DUI bills.
Identical measures in the House and Senate would slap a mandatory prison term of one to five years for DUI offenders with five or more prior DUI convictions - no matter how far back the cases go.
A separate bill, introduced by Rep. Bob Latta, from Bowling Green, would also provide tougher repeat-DUI penalties, plus make it a misdemeanor for repeat offenders to refuse a breathalyzer test, and issue orange-tinted driver's licenses to those convicted of drunken driving.
Ohio lawmakers have clear legislative options before them, and the crisis on our roads could not be clearer: Nearly six in 10 of the drunken drivers pulled over in Ohio are repeat offenders.