South Carolina ranks seventh among the states in DUI deaths. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, 358 South Carolinians died because of drunken drivers.
State lawmakers are to be commended for seriously considering Emma's Law, a bill intended to crack down on drunken driving, named for Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old Lexington County girl killed by a repeat drunken driving offender in 2012. In its current version, the bill would require all drivers registering a .15 percent of above on a Breathalyser and who plead guilty or are convicted of a first-offense DUI to install an ignition lock device on their vehicles for one year. Currently, only repeat offenders have to use the devices.
The bill has already won Senate approval and is likely to be debated by the full House as early as this week.
While well-intentioned and certainly a step in the right direction, the bill doesn't go far enough. It's likely that more lives could be saved and more crashes prevented by stiffening the bill to require every person convicted of a DUI to get the device. That would mean any driver whose blood-alcohol level is .08, the state's legal limit, or above would be affected.
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Our local law enforcement leaders, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, both support strengthening the bill, saying that the .15 is an arbitrary limit. It was probably settled upon by lawmakers attempting to reach a consensus and move the bill along.
What is not arbitrary is that interlock ignition devices lessen the rate of drunken driving.
In use in various parts of the county for more than two decades, the devices are installed on a vehicle's dashboard. Before a car can be started, the driver must exhale into the mechanism so their breath-alcohol concentration can be analyzed. If the concentration is greater than what is allowed by law then the engine won't start.
The devices, which have grown increasingly technologically-sophisticated to avoid circumvention, are now used in all states as one way to reduce the rate of impaired driving. Previously, the states' preferred method was to suspend the driving licenses of those found guilty of drunker driving. The problem: states found that many of those convicted drove anyway.
But do ignition locks do a better job of keeping drunken drivers off the roads? They reduce recidivism during the time period the devices are installed, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Its research review found that drivers with interlocks installed are 35 to 75 percent less likely to acquire a repeat drunk driving offense than those who do not have one installed. And they're equally effective when used for first time offenders as for repeat offenders .
We doubt that House members would consider stiffening the bill at this point. Such a change would likely doom its passage in a body dominated by lawyers, some of whom earn a living defending drunken drivers. As The State newspaper's John Monk points out, getting drunken drivers back on the road is a $100 million-plus business for the state's lawyers.
But if the bill passes in its current form and helps reduce the rate of drunk driving fatalities in the state, it could lay the groundwork for increased use of the devices in the near future. Here's hoping our state representatives will put its citizens' safety over special interests to make that happen.