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Published: Tuesday, 10/19/2004

Jail those DUI repeaters

RECIDIVISM rates for drunken-driving offenses in Ohio remain a serious and unacceptable problem. Just recently Sylvania Township Police were alerted to a driver of a pickup who reportedly hit another vehicle before leading officers on a chase and eventually stopping. After police had to break the driver's side window of Daniel Meridieth's vehicle to pull him out, they noted his speech "was very slurred and unintelligible."

They also learned the 41-year-old had nine prior drunken driving convictions, with six of them in the last six years. Mr. Meridieth was also driving with a suspended license dating back to a drunken driving conviction in 2000.

If it hadn't been for other motorists notifying police about what appeared to be a dangerous situation with an individual operating his vehicle erratically, police might not have been able to remove a public threat before a tragedy occurred.

But Mr. Meridieth is hardly alone out there. Highway Patrol troopers recently arrested a Jackson man for his 13th DUI, a Chillicothe man for his 11th, and a Lancaster woman for her fifth.

"With someone like that driving," said Sylvania Township police Chief Joseph Valvano, "you don't even want to think about what could happen." What is equally unsettling is how a nine-time drunken driver could apparently drink and drive again so easily.

It seems in the Meridieth case that either the revised state traffic law didn't go far enough in toughening penalties for drunken driving, or the legal system slipped up in applying the law as intended. What is clear is the drunken driving defendant managed to remain at large with a set of keys to drive a vehicle that in his hands was potentially a deadly weapon.

In June Gov. Bob Taft signed a new law into effect that corrected earlier oversights in the measure and added stronger provisions for repeat drunken driving offenders. In that regard it increased the mandatory prison time for repeat offenders from 120 days to up to five years.

The new law also opened the door to stricter penalties for people who pile up repeat drunken driving offenses by extending the applicable period from six years to 20 for those with five or more violations.

The tougher penalties were aimed squarely at repeat offenders like Mr. Meridieth who could accumulate multiple convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol knowing that the penalties for getting caught weren't that severe.

Lawmakers tightened up loopholes that had led to lenient treatment of repeaters, including boosting penalties for those who refuse to take a blood-alcohol test and have a prior conviction for driving under the influence. Even first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol content of 0.17 or higher - Ohio's drunken driving standard is 0.08 - are now required to display special yellow license plates that leave little doubt about their crime.

And yet an estimated 300,000 Ohioans are repeat drunken-driving offenders, and some 28,000 have five or more drunken-driving convictions. Alcohol is still a contributing factor in far too many auto accidents and fatalities.

Fortunately police were able to stop the Swanton Township man before he could harm himself or others. But police can't be everywhere.

Nothing short of a committed effort to enforce zero tolerance of drinking and driving will make an impression with those who brazenly put everyone at risk. A few well-publicized mandatory prison terms for repeat offenders with multiple convictions might help, too.



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