DUI’s Scarlet Letter



DUI Offenders Carry the Scarlet Letters


What does Ohio and Nathaniel Hawthorne have in common? Both use the scarlet letter to convey a message of shame and embarrassment. The red-letter license plates became mandatory for Ohioan DUI offenders on January 1, 2014, although have been issued since 1967 as a means to publicly identify drunk drivers. The plates serve the purpose of warning both motorists and law enforcement officers to be alert for drivers with a history of driving under the influence. Georgia enacted a similar law in 2013, but the law specifies numbers, not colors, making it harder to identify DUI offenders with a history.

In Ohio, Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) are grouped under the umbrella heading of Operating a Vehicle under the Influence (OVI). According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, there were 8,330 OVI Enforcements in 2016, and that many and then some during the first four months of 2017. Ohio also has the Habitual Offender Registry that lists DUI offenders with a total five convictions or more for OVI (or equivalent) within 20 years. At least one conviction must be after the law went into effect on September 30, 2008. Being on this list allows the public to see your name, date of birth, home address, and your OVI convictions. Your information remains on this list until you no longer have 5 convictions for OVI within the past 20 years.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) publishes a list of DUI-related statistics that will shock most people:

  • Drunk driving costs the U.S. $132 billion per year and each adult in this country almost $500 per year.
  • 50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license.
  • An average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before first arrest.
  • On average, one in three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime.
  • Every day in America, another 28 people die as a result of drunk driving crashes.
  • In 2012, 10,322 people died in drunk driving crashes, one every 51 minutes.
  • Almost every 90 seconds, a person is injured in a drunk driving crash.
  • About one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders.

In a CBS article of the states with the highest DUI arrests that do not include fatalities, Ohio ranked 14th. North Dakota was #1, with a rate of drinking and driving significantly higher than the national rate – 988 out of 1,000 people admitted to alcohol-impaired driving. Are the scarlet letter/number tag, offender registry and other programs effective deterrents to drunk driving, or could a bright yellow tag with bright red letters be more effective in alerting law enforcement and increasing DUI arrests? What about states with license plates already showing red lettering? Opponents of Ohio’s “scarlet letter” plates – mainly those forced to carry them on their cars – feel that individuals are unfairly marginalized or embarrassed because of their easily-recognized status as DUI offenders. That is precisely the point.

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