Non DUI Drinker Needs Ignition Device

Non-DUI Drinker Can Drive – Using Interlock

Posted on Wed, Aug. 18, 2004

By Patrick Kerkstra

Inquirer Staff Writer

Keith Emerich – the self-described “Joe Six-Pack” who lost his
driver’s license after telling a doctor of his penchant for downing up to
10 Budweisers a day – can get back on the road, a Lebanon County judge
has ruled.

But there’s a hitch.

Before he can drive, Emerich will have to install an “ignition
interlock,” a built-in blood-alcohol breath test that requires the driver
to exhale below 0.025 percent before the car will start. The state’s
legally prohibited level for most drivers is 0.08.

“Just think of the stigma that’s going to put on me, blowing into some
tube just to start your car,” Emerich, 44, said yesterday. “This is how
I’m being treated, like some common criminal.

“And all I did was go to the doctor.”

An irregular heartbeat led Emerich to Lebanon’s Good Samaritan
Hospital in February. When a physician there asked him about his alcohol
use, Emerich candidly acknowledged drinking six to 10 beers a day.
Doctors told him the alcohol was damaging his heart.

Two months later, on April Fools’ Day, he received a letter from the
state revoking his license. The decision was based on the doctor’s
judgment that Emerich had an alcohol problem.

Pennsylvania is one of only six states in the nation that direct
physicians to report drivers with potentially dangerous medical
conditions, and it is the only state to list alcohol abuse as a problem
that should be brought to official attention.

About 230 Pennsylvania drivers lost their licenses last year after
doctors reported their drug or alcohol addiction, the Pennsylvania
Department of Transportation said.

Though the ruling offers Emerich a way to get back behind the wheel of
his Ford Taurus, the judge did not overturn PennDot’s decision to rescind
Emerich’s license. Indeed, Judge Bradford H. Charles wrote Friday that
PennDot was correct to take Emerich off the road.

“If Emerich’s alcohol addiction had progressed to the point where he
could not stop drinking even though it was killing him, how could we
reasonably expect Emerich to forgo alcohol simply to ensure safe
driving?” Charles wrote.

The ruling satisfied PennDot, spokesman Anthony Haubert said. “We feel
that the decision rendered by the Court of Common Pleas clearly
recognized the importance of highway safety.”

But Emerich, who learned of the judge’s opinion Monday, was plainly
angered, and his attorney said the ruling dodged the central question of
the case.

“We’re happy that it gives him a chance to drive, but the ruling
doesn’t answer the ultimate question: Why isn’t he able to drive when he
hasn’t done anything wrong?” said Horace M. Ehrgood, Emerich’s
attorney.

Emerich has one 23-year-old drunken-driving conviction. But his
driving record is otherwise spotless, and he has said repeatedly he does
not drink and drive.

“The ignition-interlock device is usually for repeat DUI offenders,”
Ehrgood said. “He’s not a repeat DUI offender; he didn’t violate any
law.”

Pennsylvania has until now never required an ignition-interlock for
anyone but repeat DUI offenders, said Haubert, the PennDot spokesman.

In the case of repeat offenders, the interlock is kept on for one
year, at a cost of about $1,000 to the driver, Haubert said. PennDot is
uncertain how long it will require Emerich to use an interlock.

Emerich said he may not be able to afford the device, anyway.

“I’m tapped out. I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford to keep this
lawyer I have. I’ve already tapped into my 401(k) for all this,” said
Emerich, who has a job as a pressman at a Lebanon print shop.

“But I guess it’s do what they say or walk for a while.”

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Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 610-313-8111 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

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