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Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, 7315 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Maryland 20814, USA
Statutes mandating or allowing vehicle-based sanctions for impaired driving exist in many states. These sanctions are usually applied to offenders who repeat the driving while impaired (DWI) offense or who drive while under a license suspension or revocation imposed for an impaired driving offense. Thus, these sanctions are of considerable interest as a strategy both for incapacitating drinking drivers and for increasing general deterrence. The study now in progress examines a penalty being used in some parts of Ohio. Offenders who are convicted of multiple impaired driving offenses within five years or of driving on a suspended license face having their vehicles impounded at the time of arrest and later immobilized for 60 to 180 days with a "club" or "boot" device on the property of the offender. This report covers the first year of the program, during which 600 vehicles have been impounded and immobilized. The paper will describe implementation problems (including inconsistent application of the law by judges, prosecutors, and the police) and the strategies used to address them as well as preliminary findings of the outcome evaluation under way.
Illegal driving by offenders whose licenses have been suspended as a result of a drunk driving conviction is a significant problem on U.S. highways. In an effort to control such illegal driving, some states and local jurisdictions have laws that permit action to be taken against the offender's vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recognized the potential importance of these laws which allow for vehicle impoundment or immobilization by providing supplemental funding to states that pass such laws. There is little information on the effectiveness of these laws for reducing the occurrence of impaired driving or driving on a suspended license where the suspension was related to a conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI). Past research (DOT HS 807 870, June 1992) suggests that where impoundment and forfeiture laws have been enacted they have been applied to only a small portion of the driving while suspended offenders. Therefore, most drivers are probably unaware that they may be at risk of losing the use of their vehicle. If impoundment or forfeiture type sanctions are applied more widely, it may be possible to make drivers more aware of vehicle penalties and thus deter impaired driving or driving on a suspended license.
For several years, the State of Ohio has had a law permitting the immobilization of a vehicle operated illegally by a suspended drunk driving offender. Initially, this penalty was used only in a few smaller counties in Ohio. In September of 1993, however, Franklin County, with a population of over one million, began to use the penalty. At the same time, the law was changed in Ohio to include, in addition to driving while suspended offenders, drivers convicted of second and subsequent DWI offenses [Administrative license suspension (ALS) was also implemented statewide at that time. A public education campaign for ALS occurred along with the implementation of the law. This campaign included some mention of the immobilization penalty, though this was not its primary emphasis]. The immobilization law was also amended to call for immediate impoundment of the vehicle in these cases until the courts can order the immobilization. The length of the immobilization period for driving while suspended is 30 days for a first offense, and 60 days for a second offense. The immobilization penalty is 90 days for a second DWI offense and 180 days for a third within five years. A third offense driving while suspended or a fourth offense DWI can lead to confiscation of the vehicle. The penalties apply even if the owner of the car is not the driver, unless the owner can prove that he/she was unaware that the offender was using the vehicle or that he/she was unaware that the offender did not have a valid license.
In most cases, the vehicle is immobilized on or near the offender's property, using a "club" device on the steering wheel that prevents the vehicle from being driven. If the vehicle owner is uncooperative in installing the club device (which requires access to the vehicle's interior) a "boot" device can be used on the wheel. Thus, immobilization has the practical advantage over impoundment in that a storage lot is not required. The immobilization devices are relatively inexpensive. The offender must pay a fee for the installation and removal of the device.
By contrast, vehicle impoundment frequently poses a problem to both the offender and local government because the cost of storage can amount to more than the value of the vehicle. In this case, the offender frequently does not claim the car when eligible to do so and the municipality is forced to pay the difference between the value of the vehicle and the storage costs.
The current study began in October, 1992 and will continue until August of 1995. The site of the field test is Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus is the major metropolitan area in the county). Hamilton County (with Cincinnati as the major metropolitan area), which, at the time the study began, had not yet implemented a widespread immobilization program, serves as a comparison site [Currently, there is an active program in Hamilton County to impound (rather than immobilize) the vehicles of DWI and driving while suspended offenders]. Funds have been provided by the Ohio Department of Public Safety to pay for an immobilization coordinator in Franklin County to assist the courts and law enforcement agencies in implementing the law and to maintain implementation and evaluation records.
The evaluation of the immobilization penalty includes three parts: a process evaluation of the implementation of the law, an evaluation of its specific deterrence effects, and an evaluation of its general deterrence effects.
An implementation evaluation is being carried out to determine the extent to which the immobilization penalty is actually being imposed, reasons it is not imposed, and problems experienced by the courts, law enforcement, and other agencies in attempting to implement the law.
Data collection for the implementation evaluation includes the review of court dockets to identify offenders who qualify for the immobilization penalty and the examination of court records to determine which of these cases actually result in immobilization. Frequent informal contact is maintained with the immobilization coordinator and with court personnel in order to monitor problems as they emerge and record the strategies adopted to deal with problems. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges involved in the vehicle immobilization program are questioned periodically to collect their opinions of the value of the program as well as their assessment of any problems encountered and potential solutions.
Coverage of the immobilization program and related issues in the local newspapers is monitored throughout the project in both Franklin and Hamilton Counties.
The driving records of all offenders eligible for the immobilization penalty since September 1993 are being followed until August 1995. The demographic characteristics of the offenders, their prior driving history, and the nature of the offense that made them eligible for immobilization are recorded. Comparisons will be made of the subsequent driving records of immobilized and non-immobilized offenders in Franklin County during the study period. Background information on the offenders will allow for statistical control of any demographic and driving record measures that vary between immobilized and non-immobilized subjects.
A questionnaire distributed to offenders at the time the immobilization device is removed is designed to collect information regarding the impact of immobilization on various aspects of the offender's life. The questionnaire asks about access to other vehicles, effects of immobilization on job and family, and whether immobilization resulted in damage to the car.
The general deterrence effects of the immobilization penalty are expected to have the greatest impact on DWI offenders. General deterrence will be studied using those drivers who are at risk for immobilization (DWI offenders), but who are not apprehended by the police for an immobilization offense during the project period (September 1993 through August 1995). DWI offenders in Franklin County are given informational materials about the immobilization penalty by the arresting officer and in the DWI education programs attended by most offenders. A questionnaire was administered to a sample of 102 offenders in Franklin County prior to the implementation of the immobilization program in order to measure the baseline level of awareness of the penalty among offenders prior to any educational efforts. A similar questionnaire was administered to 121 offenders shortly after implementation, to another 158 offenders six months later and to 182 offenders one year after implementation. Comparison samples in Hamilton County filled out the questionnaire in the same time periods in order to determine whether the perception of the penalty is different in a community in which immobilization is being widely used compared to one in which it is not.
Awareness of the vehicle sanctions among offenders, as measured by the questionnaires administered in the DWI education programs in Franklin County, appears to have increased since the beginning of the program and to be greater than in the comparison county. Thus, a general deterrence effect on this target group seems possible. Actual deterrence effects will be measured later in the project.
In order to measure the deterrence impact of the penalty, a sample of driving records of DWI offenders will be followed in Franklin County (the experimental site) and Hamilton County (the comparison site) to test for differences in rates of driving while suspended and subsequent DWI arrests.
Since the beginning of the immobilization program, more than 1,000 vehicles have been immobilized in Franklin County. Preliminary estimates indicate that these immobilizations constitute somewhat less than half of eligible cases. The failure to apply the penalty uniformly to all offenders can sometimes be attributed to the fact that offenders are driving vehicles belonging to others. Judges have different interpretations of the laws regarding this situation.
One aspect of the law as currently implemented has caused considerable logistical problems. The current law states that vehicles of offenders must be impounded immediately at the time of arrest. Later, when the offender has been convicted of an offense for which immobilization is the penalty, the vehicle should be released from the impound lot and immobilized. This law has the effect of making the vehicle sanction more dramatic and severe, but in many cases, it cancels out the logistical advantages of immobilization, including streamlined processing, and causes implementation problems such as abandonment of vehicles when impoundment costs are too high.