More than 266,000 Ohioans have received three or more drunk-driving suspensions.
“No matter how you cut it, it’s a huge problem,” said Ohio Department of Public Safety spokesman Geoff Dutton. “Obviously everybody should be concerned, and it’s something that everybody should take very seriously.”
The Daily News obtained records for all 12 million license suspensions in the public safety department database and found that 2.3 million of them are related to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs by almost 980,000 individuals. Ninety-eight percent of the suspensions occurred since 1983. Four in five alcohol-related suspensions were issued to men.
Repeat offenders are a big part of the problem: The 266,000 three-times-or-more offenders account for more than half of the drunk-driving suspensions imposed on Ohio drivers over the years, the analysis shows. Courts have slapped more than 21,000 individuals with “habitual alcoholic” suspensions, which are triggered when a driver gets three suspensions for operating a vehicle intoxicated, or OVI, over a three-year period.
OVI previously was called DWI, driving while intoxicated, or DUI, driving under the influence.
William Campbell, 43, of Cincinnati, has the most OVI convictions among Ohio drunk drivers whose impairment resulted in fatalities, with nine suspensions. On Oct. 1, 2008, Campbell ran a stop sign, hit an embankment and slammed into a church, killing his passenger, Tina Hayes of Norwood. He is serving a 23-year prison sentence for aggravated vehicular homicide and other offenses.
10,000 per year killed in alcohol crashes
The issue of drunken driving captured headlines earlier this month, when the National Transportation Safety Board issued what it called “a bold set of targeted interventions to put the country on a course to eliminate alcohol-impaired driving crashes.” They included a controversial recommendation, not supported by the Obama administration, to reduce the legal threshold for intoxication to a blood alcohol content level of .05 percent, down from the current .08.
The NTSB called drunken driving a national epidemic that is persistently responsible for 30 percent of fatal crashes in the U.S. Nearly 10,000 people a year are killed in alcohol-related crashes and 173,000 are injured, with 27,000 of them suffering incapacitating injuries. In the last 30 years, alcohol-related crashes have claimed nearly 440,000 lives.
The Daily News analysis shows that Clark County Municipal Court in Springfield has handled, by far, the most alcohol-related suspensions in the region, followed by municipal courts in Miami County, Fairborn, Kettering, Hamilton and Vandalia.
Asked about the Daily News findings about repeat offenders, Lt. Anne Ralston of the Ohio Highway Patrol said, “From the law enforcement perspective, does that surprise me? No. Obviously, OVI is a high-recidivism offense. It’s something that’s a continual battle for law enforcement.”
Sears, 54, got his 20 OVI convictions between 1986 and 2005, state records show. He served four years in prison for a felony OVI conviction in Warren County in 2001, and was released Aug. 25, 2005. Court records show he was arrested again for OVI in Cedarville on Nov. 15, 2005, and found guilty. Efforts to reach Sears for comment were unsuccessful.
One man, 32 OVI suspensions
In some cases, two suspensions in the state records stem from the same incident. That’s because a law enforcement officer can issue a suspension on the spot to drivers who test positive for a blood alcohol content at or above .08 percent or to those who refuse to be tested. A second suspension, superceding the first, is issued by the court after a finding of guilt. Therefore, it’s possible for a repeat drunk driver to have more suspensions than someone with more separate offenses.
Todd Manley, 48, of the Summit County town of Hudson, leads the state in alcohol-related suspensions, with 32 between 1986 and 2002, the data show. These suspensions translate to 18 drunken driving convictions, state officials said.
Springfield’s Jacob Gilbert, also 48, has the most OVI suspensions regionally and ranks sixth statewide, with 26 stretching from 1984 to January of this year. He was sentenced to a year in prison on Thursday in Clark County Common Pleas Court for his 15th OVI conviction, and ordered to complete five years’ probation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and high school equivalency programming. He was fined $2,800.
Efforts to contact Gilbert in recent weeks were unsuccessful. His brother-in-law, Virgil McConnaha, said Gilbert was in an in-patient rehabilitation program prior to his sentencing. Gilbert didn’t reply to a request for comment left at the rehab center.
“That’s his big fault in life — getting behind the wheel of the car drinking,” McConnaha said. “I hoped he would’ve learned his lesson after the last time.”
Lisa Fannin, an assistant Clark County prosecutor specializing in OVI cases, said nothing short of prison time works for repeat offenders like Gilbert.
“Once they get to this level, unfortunately usually the only thing that works is a lengthy period of incarceration,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to endanger the community (from behind bars). Most of them haven’t had a valid driver’s license for a very long time and that hasn’t deterred them. They continue to drink and drive.”
OVIs can lead to prison time
Most OVIs are misdemeanors with progressive penalties for repeat offenders, including jail time. Prosecutors can seek felony charges carrying state prison time if a suspect has had three previous convictions in six years or four in 20 years, or if a drunken driving crash resulted in serious injury or death. OVI felonies can result in up to 10 years’ imprisonment, even if no one is injured.
Manley’s last OVI nearly had deadly consequences. He was driving his brother’s Corvette in Stow, Ohio — without permission, the brother told the Akron Beacon Journal —when he lost control, drove into a driveway and slammed into a parked car just as a 14-year-old girl was exiting, pinning the lower half of her body between the door and her mother’s car.
“She said her body felt like it was ripped in half, and she asked me if she was going to die,” the girl’s mother told the Beacon Journal. The girl’s injuries were not life-threatening.
In a phone interview, Manley said he is self-employed and has been sober for more than 10 years. He expressed bitterness that he was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years for OVI: “Do you think that’s fair? Do you think they could have come up with another alternative?” But, asked if he thought the punishment was too severe, he paused, then said, “No. It got me where I am today, so I guess not.”
Ralston said the state patrol works to keep drivers from getting in trouble through drunk-driving awareness programs. Troopers talk to young children, teens and even first-time OVI offenders across the state in an effort “to get them to make good decisions on the front end.”
But, ultimately, the responsibility to avoid driving drunk is in the hands of the motorist. Ralston said people need to plan ahead, before their judgment is impaired by alcohol, to ensure they have safe transportation if they’ve been drinking.
“Really, it’s a personal choice,” Ralston said. “It’s a real simple thing to avoid — just don’t drive.”