COLUMBUS — A potential vote on a bill increasing penalties for wrong-way drivers on interstate highways was postponed Wednesday amid concerns that it goes too far in punishing unintentional behavior.
Much of the discussion before the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee focused on a provision bumping a misdemeanor charge up to a felony for a drunk driver who enters an interstate exit ramp.
But other sections of Senate Bill 336 would impose a mandatory one-year license suspension on any driver who travels more than 500 feet in the wrong direction.
“Driving down the interstate in the wrong direction is certainly foolish, stupid, and negligent,” said Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati). “It is reprehensible when committed under OVI circumstances, but this bill goes far beyond that. … When people are mandatorily suspended from driving their car, they’ve got to get to work. When they cannot get to work, they are out of a job. When they’re out of a job, their ability to support their families and children is impaired…”
Mr. Seitz was heavily involved in recent legislation designed to thin out Ohio’s overcrowded prison system and reduce ancillary punishment for people convicted of crimes that later prevent them from getting jobs and certain professional licenses.
He said Ohio law already imposes harsher penalties on drunken drivers who kill or injure others, but this bill would go after drivers who aren’t impaired.
The measure had been scheduled for a possible committee vote, but the chairman, Sen. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville), held it for an additional hearing. Any bill that does not reach Gov. John Kasich’s desk before lawmakers end the current two-year session in mid-December will die and resurrecting it would mean starting the process over again next year.
Sponsored by Sens. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) and Jim Hughes (R., Columbus), the bill would apply only to interstate highways and not divided state highways.
One of the incidents that led Mr. Wagoner to push the bill was the March crash near Dunbridge on I-75 that killed three Bowling Green State University sorority sisters and the wrong-way driver from Perrysburg Township who collided with them. Investigators found no indication of alcohol or a medical problem that contributed to why the elderly woman entered the highway going the wrong direction.
Columbus police Sgt. Ryan Chrysler was an officer in 2007 when his cruiser was struck head-on by an impaired, wrong-way driver on I-71. He was trapped in the vehicle for 45 minutes. A year later he was shot in the face with a 32-caliber bullet during an altercation in which he killed the shooter, but it was the accident that consumed his thoughts.
“Even now, five years later, I drive an identical clone of the cruiser I was trapped in,” he said. “I think about the trial of the OVI driver every time I am in court. I think about the 20 days he served for the offense. I think of how my sentence has been much longer.”
Currently, wrong-way drivers face a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $150 and points against their driver’s license. If such drivers have been found guilty of other traffic violations within the previous year, the violation could rise as high as a third-degree misdemeanor carrying up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Senate Bill 336 would invoke a one-year license suspension for someone caught driving farther than 500 feet on the wrong side of an interstate, and a subsequent violation of that suspension would trigger a year in jail. If someone is killed or injured, the wrong-way driver would face a suspension of two to 10 years with a subsequent violation of that suspension triggering a third-degree felony carrying a three-year prison term.
A drunken driver who commits a wrong-way violation would face a fourth-degree felony carrying a six to 18-month jail term.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.