Beaufort County leaders say drunken-driving bill should be stricter

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comMarch 23, 2014 

Beaufort County leaders would like to see stronger language in "Emma's Law," a bill intended to crack down on drunken driving.

The bill, currently being considered by the S.C. House of Representatives, would increase the use of ignition interlock devices -- which test a driver's breath for alcohol before the car will start -- for those convicted of DUI under certain circumstances. It passed the Senate a year ago.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said the law should go even further and require that every person convicted of DUI get the devices.

The proposal would require all drivers registering a .15 percent or above on a Breathalyzer and who plead guilty or are convicted of a first-offense DUI to install the ignition lock device on their vehicles.

The offender would then have to blow alcohol-free breath into the device before the vehicle would start.

Currently, only DUI second offenders have to use the ignition interlock.

A blood-alcohol level of .08 is considered legally drunk in South Carolina.

"I think that the interlocking devices are an appropriate punishment for those convicted for DUI, including a first offense," Stone said. "But I believe that .15 is arbitrary. I think it should apply to anyone convicted, not just for those that blow higher than .15."

Tanner agreed.

"I don't care if you're an experienced drinker or not, .15 is drunk, to put it bluntly," Tanner said.

What's more, the rule of thumb in law enforcement is that a person convicted of DUI for the first time probably has driven drunk between 20 and 25 times before, according to Tanner.

"When (drunken driving) happens without incident or getting caught, everyone was lucky that day," Tanner said. "But at some point in time, that person is caught and the reality is, that person has been a repeat offender."

In 2012, South Carolina ranked seventh among all states in DUI deaths, with 358, according to the national Highway Traffic Safety Administration, even though it is only the 24th most populous state.

Drunken driving is a problem, and Emma's Law is a strong preventative measure, according to state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

The bill would improve protection for every driver almost immediately, Erickson and Beaufort County Councilman Tabor Vaux agreed.

"I think it could save a lot of lives," said Vaux, who also is a Bluffton-based personal injury lawyer. "Driving is more of a privilege than a right. (Emma's Law) is not meant to punish anybody; it's to keep the rest of us safe."

Emma's Law is named after 6-year-old Emma Longstreet of Lexington, S.C., who died New Year's Day 2012 when her family's minivan was struck by a drunken driver.

At a House subcommittee meeting last week, an overflow crowd of doctors, police, fire officers, DUI victims and Emma's family members spoke in favor of the bill. The subcommittee approved the bill -- but raised the blood-alcohol level required for the device on a first conviction from .12 to .15 -- and it is now before the full Judiciary Committee for debate.

However, it still has a long way to go before it becomes law, Erickson and Stone cautioned.

"If it's approved, I would hope that it would make an impact, and I think to a degree it will," Tanner said. "If it can take another drunk driver off the road, then absolutely we'll support it."

The (Columbia) State reporter John Monk contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

Related content:

Emma's Law advances (+video from hearing), March 20, 2014

Emma's law: Safety activists try to toughen laws they say coddle potential DUI killers, March 18, 2014

Salvation and anguish over DUI repeat offenders mark Josiah's funeral, March 16, 2014

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