Walt Rooney’s hope is that, by the time you read this, Ohio House Bill 469 will be moving toward Governor Kasich’s office to be signed into law. If it is, first-time DUI offenders in the state will be required to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles, essentially forcing them to pass a breathalyzer test before being able to start their cars. “This is absolutely a bipartisan effort, and it’s not punishment,” says Rooney. “It’s really just a public health issue.”
For Rooney and his family, it’s also a personal one. HB 469 is better known as “Annie’s Law,” named for Rooney’s younger sister, who was killed by a drunk driver in July 2013. A lawyer and former prosecutor, Annie recently had started her own law firm in her hometown of Chillicothe, and she raced mountain bikes in her spare time. Mobilized by the loss of a beloved, vibrant sibling, Rooney relocated from Seattle to his native Ohio. In September, he and his family were in the homestretch of an emotional lobbying effort to push through HB 469, a law similar to those on the books in 24 other states, and which statistics show greatly reduces recidivism among DUI offenders. You can read about Annie’s Law at www.annierooney.com.
“Losing my sister sensitized us to just how prevalent these deaths are, and how far behind Ohio is on mandatory ignition interlocks,” Rooney says. “There are still between 400 and 500 people per year getting killed by drunk drivers in Ohio.” Rooney and his family have recruited statewide and national support for the bill, including the Ohio State Medical Association, the NTSB, Nationwide Insurance, as well as MADD and AAA.
A plastic surgeon currently working toward an M.B.A. at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Rooney repeatedly emphasizes the undeniable public-health benefits of such a law. “I’m a physician; I have to wear gloves and a mask when I operate,” he says. “This is really no different.” There’s been relatively light opposition to the bill—Rooney cites research that finds that the decrease in DUI-related crashes more than makes up for the bill’s cost—and he’s especially optimistic about a bipartisan bill in Congress that would withhold federal funding to states that don’t have such laws on the books.
The Rooney family is getting closer to seeing its life-saving efforts come to fruition. For so many reasons, that day can’t come soon enough for them. “It’s been over a year, and it’s still really hard to talk about this. We have to testify, and go over our family’s story again and again,” Rooney says. “But it helps that we’re trying to keep my sister’s death from being in vain.”