Sunday, October 12, 2003

'DUI plates' are one more clue for cautious drivers

Laura Pulfer

I look for clues when I'm behind the wheel. Most of them are more about my paint job than about safety. For instance, I avoid parking next to a car that's already banged up, figuring they have nothing to lose if they're careless with their door.

If a sign on the car says, "Student Driver," I assume this is their very first lesson. I do not assume they will stop when they should or stay on their own side of the road.

When I'm on the highway, I give a seriously wide berth to rental trucks, unwieldy vehicles driven by amateurs. And I never extend a single-digit salute to someone in a pickup truck with a gun rack.

My mother is wary of drivers in hats. "They drive too fast and are careless," she claims. I don't know if she's right, but she has never been in an accident caused by another person.

Any sensible driver is extra careful when they see a weaver, drifting left of center and onto the berm. Most of the time, it's somebody on a cell phone or eating Biggie Sized sandwich or - and I'm sorry to say this - a woman applying makeup. But sometimes you have to wonder if that driver who is all over the road is genuinely impaired.

Maybe we need an additional clue.

The Ohio legislature has thoughtfully provided something else to watch for. Jan. 1, a new law will require motorists convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol to use mustard-yellow license plates with bright red numbers. These "DUI plates" have been a judicial option since 1967, but I've never seen one.

No wonder.

As of Oct. 1, according to Julie Hinds of the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles, only 1,526 such plates have been issued - four in Hamilton County, three in Butler, two in Clermont, seven in Warren and none in Adams.

DUI offenders who are granted special driving privileges - for example, to and from work or for medical or educational purposes - won't be allowed to drive without the plates. And it might be noted that everybody else in the family who drives the car will be driving with the scarlet-lettered plates.

"If nothing else," says attorney Jim Slattery, "it's an embarrassment. Maybe the other people who have to go around with that plate on the car might exert some influence." He's hell on wheels, so to speak, on the crime of drunk driving.

A humiliation? Too bad.

"Driving is a privilege," he says, "not a right. Drunk driving is a crime of violence because of its potential." A public defender who works mostly in Hamilton County's Drug Court, he has a convert's zeal.

He has been sober for nine years, but before that he drove drunk. Plenty of times. He was only caught once. "I'm all for anything that helps get impaired drivers off the road, even first-time offenders."

Sgt. Robin Schmutz of the Ohio Highway Patrol says, "We still have to have a primary violation. We wouldn't just stop somebody with the DUI plate. But citizens might look a little harder at that vehicle."

Besides the weavers, she says we should watch for people speeding up and slowing down. If you see something that looks dangerous, call 1-800-GRABDUI or 1-877-7PATROL with a description of the car and a license number.

"We'll dispatch somebody right away," she says. "We want to save lives. Maybe the new plates will be one tool."

At least it's another clue.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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