Sunday, October 01, 2000

Kentucky DUI gets tougher today

Blood-alcohol limit lowered; judges get stronger powers

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fort Mitchell officer Ron Johnson begins enforcing a tougher DUI law today.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The toughest drunken-driving law in the Tristate starts today in Kentucky, where a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 can cost drivers their license — or worse.

        It comes a dozen years after Larry Mahoney slammed into a church bus near Carrollton, Ky., and killed 27 people returning from Kings Island. The nation's worst drunken-driving accident spawned new laws across the country, including in the Bluegrass State.

        Kentucky's new law lowers the blood-alcohol level at which drivers are presumed intoxicated from 0.10 to 0.08.

        It also imposes harsher punishments on repeat drunken drivers, giving judges more options for punishing them.

How to calculate your blood alcohol content
        Judges now can seize license plates — not just licenses — of certain driving-under-the-influence (DUI) offenders. They can also force a repeat offender to install an ignition-locking device, which prevents a vehicle from starting if the portable breath analyzers deem the driver drunk.

        Also, jail time can double under certain circumstances.

        “Kentucky's new law can be one of the toughest ones in the Tristate if the judges and prosecutors enforce it,” said Janey Fair of Radcliff, Ky.

        Her 14-year-old daughter, Shannon, died in the horrific May 14, 1988, Carrollton bus crash, along with 23 other children and three adults.

        Kentucky is the 18th state in the nation to lower its blood-alcohol standard. Yet, as the new law takes effect, some restaurant owners south of the Ohio River fear

        they will lose business when customers opt to stay home or drink less.

        “We're more concerned that our customers will stay home and not go out at all,” said Pat Boylson, president of the 155-member Northern Kentucky Restaurant Association.

        Mr. Boylson and Stacy Roof, president of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, said they don't think Kentucky's new law does enough to address the problem of the habitual drunken driver.

        “The Kentucky Restaurant Association supports stricter penalties for drivers with high BAC levels and for repeat offenders, rather than unfairly targeting responsible drinkers by broadening the offender category,” Ms. Roof said.

        Supporters argue it is important to do everything possible to prevent tragedies, such as the Carrollton crash.

        Mr. Mahoney was so drunk that night, his blood-alcohol level was 0.24 percent, more than twice the legal limit at the time for driving in Kentucky. He entered Interstate 71 driving north in the southbound lanes near Carrollton. He didn't even know he had crashed his pickup truck into the church bus until he woke up in a hospital the next morning with minor injuries.

        He was released a year ago after serving 9 1/2 years for assault, manslaughter, wanton endangerment and drunken driving.

        Some predict Kentucky's new law will help Mothers Against Drunk Driving in its two-year lobbying effort to get Congress to pass a national 0.08 BAC standard.

        If successful, the 32 states with a 0.10 standard — including Ohio and Indiana — would then have to adopt the 0.08 standard or risk losing millions in federal highway dollars. The national bill is currently before a House conference committee.

        “If (Kentucky's law) is enforced, and there's public awareness surrounding its implementation, it'll save a lot of lives,” predicted Millie Webb, MADD's national president.

Fewer fatalities
               Just two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a study that found that drivers' concentration, attention and reflexes are all impaired at the 0.08 level — regardless of age, gender or drinking practices.

        Supporters of Kentucky's law point to declining fatalities attributed to alcohol-related accidents in states that already have the lower standard.

        • A 1996 Boston University study comparing six states that had 0.08 laws with six nearby states that had the 0.10 standard, found a six percent greater decline in fatal DUI accidents in the 0.08 standard states.

        • In California, the largest state to adopt a 0.08 limit, researchers have documented a 12 percent drop in alcohol-related fatal crashes since the new standards in 1990.

        • In September, a U.S. Department of Transportation study showed Illinois' 0.08 blood-alcohol content limit, adopted in 1997, resulted in 13.7 percent fewer drivers involved in fatal crashes. The reduction included drivers at both high and low BAC levels.

        In Kentucky, more than 200 people die each year in alcohol-related crashes. That is about one of every four traffic fatalities in the state.

        “If those people were dying because they were stabbed or shot by handguns, we would be up in arms,” said state Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Franklin, a primary sponsor of the new law.

Change has critics
               But the law's critics, which include the state restaurant association and many others in the hospitality industry, say the new legislation won't deter habitual drunken drivers.

        “All this law really does is make the social drinker — the person who goes to a wedding or out to dinner on a Saturday night — drink less,” said Jim Willman, vice president of the Drawbridge Inn in Fort Mitchell. “Instead of having two glasses of wine, they'll only have one.”

        The new law doesn't scare members of a group of six 50-ish women from the Cincinnati area who call themselves the First Wives Club. They socialize once a month at various restaurants, but they say they already limit themselves to one drink when they go out.

        “I think most people today are afraid to serve drinks at parties in their homes,” said Joyce Seltzer, of Amberley Village. “They're worried about the liability, if something happens.”

        Ludlow resident Randall Born, 43, said he stops by Chez Nora's restaurant in Covington several nights a week for a couple of beers and a liqueur. He wonders whom the law will benefit.

        “I think this new law will annoy responsible drinkers,” said Mr. Born. “If you're running a red light, speeding or weaving, you should be pulled over. But I don't see what difference it'll make ratcheting down the (BAC) an extra degree or two.”

        Illinois' hospitality industry tackled the issue when its law passed three years ago. Now industry leaders say there was no significant drop in revenues, and they have partnered with the state in campaigns to help get out the word against driving under the influence.

The one-third rule
               The new law will help prosecutors take and keep drunken drivers off the road, said Kenton County Attorney, Garry Edmondson, who served on the Kentucky attorney general's DUI task force two years ago.

        “I think we'll get more guilty pleas, more convictions and more people taking the (breath) test,” he said.

        Bill Crockett, the chief prosecutor in the Kenton County attorney's office, predicted that Kenton County's 65 percent conviction rate of DUI cases will improve to about 80 percent during the first six months of the new law.

        The law also helps prosecutors in that it bases the BAC limit on a test administered within two hours of driving, Mr. Edmondson said.

        To sum up the need for a tougher law, Mr. Edmondson referred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's “one-third rule.”

        When it comes to getting caught driving drunk, he said, “one-third will do it once, and never do it again. Another one-third will keep on doing it, no matter what.

        “It's that one-third in the middle that you want to try to impact and hit hard the first time they're stopped.”

Facts about Kentucky's new DUI law
SAMPLES: Tip for tipplers: Don't drive

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