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Ohio’s Drunk Driving Laws

In 2004, there were 477 alcohol-related deaths and 10,568 alcohol-related injuries in the Buckeye state (click here for a list by county). According to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, an average of 429 deaths, 11,634 injuries and 17,908 alcohol-related crashes occurred annually in Ohio during the period 2000-2004. Nationally, 17,013 alcohol-related deaths occurred in 2003, a slight decrease from the 17,524 in 2002.

On January 1, 2004 Ohio adopted an OVI (Operating a Vehicle under the Influence) violation. It replaced violations for DUI (Driving Under the Influence) and OMVI (Operating a Motor Vehicle under the Influence).

Administrative License Suspension (ALS)

Ohio’s drunk driving laws are swift and sure with license surrender occurring on-the-spot and suspension starting immediately. Under the ALS law (effective September 1, 1993), any motorist stopped for drunk driving who refuses to take the sobriety test or whose test results exceed the legal limit of .08% Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) will have his/her license taken administratively on the spot, with suspension effective immediately. Depending on previous offenses, the ALS period can range from 90 days to five years. The administrative suspension is independent of any jail term, fine or other criminal penalty imposed in court for an OVI offense.

How ALS works

If a person is stopped and arrested for OVI and either fails or refuses a blood alcohol or chemical test, the officer seizes the offender’s drivers license on the spot, serves notice of suspension and sends the offender’s drivers license to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV). The time period that the BMV administratively suspends the offender’s driving privileges is shown in the chart below. The court must hold the ALS hearing, if requested, within five days of arrest. At the requested appeal hearing, the court addresses the following issues (burden of proof is on the defendant):

  • Was the arrest based on reasonable grounds?
  • Did the officer request the violator to take a test?
  • Was the violator made aware of the consequences if he/she refused or failed the test?
  • Did the violator refuse or fail the test?

If the court replies “yes” to all of these questions, then the court affirms the suspension. If the court replies “no” to any of the questions, then the court terminates the suspension and reinstates driving privileges. If the court determines the offender is a threat to public safety, even if the questions are answered “no,” the offender may receive a judicial suspension.

Fines, jail time and penalties

Based on previous OVI offenses, fines range from $250 to $10,000. Jail time ranges from three days to life. Click here for "Summary of Major OVI Penalties" including fines and jail sentences for repeat offenders.

Note: The chart summarizes some major changes to the laws—it does not detail all provisions of Ohio’s OVI laws.

Limited driving privileges and restricted license plates

Ohio OVI laws provide courts an option to grant limited driving privileges after a specified “hard time” suspension has been completed by the offender. If privileges are granted, restricted plates are required to be used on the offender’s vehicle if titled in his/her name. Ohio’s restricted plates are yellow with red letters.

Source: Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles

Driving under OVI suspension

When Driving Under Suspension (DUS) for OVI or DUS without proof of financial responsibility, the court is authorized to order vehicle immobilization and impoundment of the license plates at the time of sentencing within a five year period for:

  • First offense: 30 days
  • Second offense: 60 days
  • Third offense: Forfeit vehicle

Note: For multiple OVI offenders under suspension, the court may also impound the plates of any other vehicle owned by the offender.

Vehicle forfeiture

Permanent loss of a vehicle shall be ordered by the court for any of the following which occurs within five years:

  • Third offense OVI
  • Third offense or more of DUS for OVI or DUS for financial responsibility
  • First offense of driving a vehicle that is immobilized and plates impounded

Wrongful entrustment: A vehicle can no longer be seized, immobilized or forfeited unless it is registered in the driver’s name. However, a person who loans a car to someone that person knows or has reason to believe should not be driving can be held criminally liable for wrongful entrustment, and can be jailed for up to 180 days and receive a one-year driver license suspension. In addition, the person’s vehicle can be immobilized or forfeited.

Recent Ohio OVI legislation

HB 52 became law on June 1, 2004. The law increases penalties for repeat drunk drivers and requires a 6-18 month sentence if the offender has 3 or more prior OVI convictions within a 6-year period. Offenders accumulating 5 more convictions within 20 years could be sentenced up to 30 months.

If a judge grants driving privileges for work, the offender is required to have restricted plates (yellow and red) on the vehicle after two or more convictions.

Other OVI legislation includes:

  • Am. Sub. House Bill 87 (HB 87)—effective July 1, 2003—contained a provision that set Ohio’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) for those 21 and older to .08% (down from .10%).
  • Senate Bill 123 (SB 123)—effective January 1, 2004—was an all-encompassing law based on recommendations of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission to simplify Ohio’s traffic code. With its enactment, penalties are now placed in the same section as the offense and terminology was created to simplify Ohio statute.

A number of sections of SB 123 affected Ohio drunk driving laws. Some of the major changes include:

  • OVI, or Operating a Vehicle under the Influence, replaces DUI (Driving Under the Influence) and OMVI (Operating a Motor Vehicle under the Influence)
  • Restricted license plates can be issued for OVI offenders
  • Vehicles can’t be seized, immobilized, or forfeited unless registered in the driver’s name, which repeals the “innocent owner” defense
  • A new “physical control” offense was created to cover being intoxicated in the driver’s position with the vehicle’s ignition key, but not driving
  • Provides consistency between OVI laws for watercraft and motor vehicles
  • Clarifies no driving privileges allowed if offender has three or more OVI convictions in six years

National standards

The 2001 US Transportation Appropriations Act mandates that a portion of a state’s highway construction fund be withheld if it didn’t adopt a .08% BAC level by October 2003. Ohio adopted .08% BAC effective July 1, 2003.

  • All 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a .08% BAC level.
  • 45 states allow some offenders to drive only if their vehicles have been equipped with an ignition interlock – a device that analyzes the driver’s breath and will disable the ignition if it detects the driver has been drinking.
  • Repeat offenders may end up forfeiting their vehicles being driven while impaired in 30 states.
  • It is illegal for drivers and passengers to possess an open container of alcohol in the passenger compartment of a vehicle in 43 states and DC.

A list of state OVI/DUI laws is available from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at

Delaware was the first to ratify the US Constitution but last in the nation to cling to a .10 blood-alcohol threshold for determining intoxication. In May 2004 the governors of the other holdout states of Colorado and Minnesota signed .08 legislation into law. West Virginia and New Jersey adopted .08 in January.
(Excerpted from, 6/7/04)

Innovations in alcohol detection

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that innovative technology is available to help curb impaired driving, but doubts it will surface in the US anytime in the near future. From vehicle manufacturers including miniature breathe sensors on keyless remote systems, to laser devices to scan your skin, technology is available to help stop impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.

A copy of the IIHS Status Report, “Reflecting on the alcohol-impaired driving problem worldwide and what to do about it,” is available online at

Blood Alcohol Concentration

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) is a measure of the amount of alcohol in the body. Blood alcohol is measured directly through testing blood or indirectly through tests that use breath, urine or saliva.

Note: Alcohol consumption affects individuals differently. Information provided should be viewed as generalizations only.

Figure 1

Most people will be noticeably drunk at .08% BAC. Even though some drinkers appear to be in control of themselves, they nevertheless have lost crucial driving abilities, as illustrated in Figure 1, “Blood Alcohol Content and Skills Impairment.”

Sources: Ohio Department of Public Safety and MADD, Ohio Chapter.

Figure 2

The chances for becoming involved in a crash begins to rise at .04%–.05% BAC and increases rapidly thereafter, as seen in Figure 2, “Blood Alcohol Content and Crash Risk.” By the time a driver reaches .06% BAC, the motorist is twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash as a nondrinking driver. And at levels of .08%, a driver is three times more likely than a nondrinking driver to be involved in a fatal crash.

Sources: Ohio Department of Public Safety and MADD, Ohio Chapter.




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