An effort to close holes in South Carolina’s drunk-driving laws and crack down on first-time offenders is ramping up at the State House.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson this week threw their support behind a proposal to require the installation of ignition-interlock devices in the vehicles of anyone charged with driving drunk.
The proposed law – which has cut drunk-driving deaths by 15 percent in the states that have passed it – slowly is advancing in the House and Senate.
“There has rarely been legislation more important to saving lives,” state Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, the bill’s sponsor, said at a State House rally Tuesday.
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The bill aims to address a part of South Carolina’s DUI law that allows defendants charged with drunk driving to get back on the road within days. But it could face opposition from lawmakers concerned ignition-interlock devices are expensive, especially for drivers who later are exonerated.
Drivers with the devices must blow into them before starting their cars. The device analyzes the driver’s breath and prevents the car from starting if the driver’s blood-alcohol concentration is .02 percent or more. The devices stopped nearly 2,000 drunk-driving attempts in South Carolina in 2017, McMaster said at the rally.
Still, they aren’t as common as some S.C. lawmakers hoped when the Legislature passed Emma’s Law in 2014 – named after Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old killed in 2012 by a drunk driver as her family drove to church in Lexington.
Under current law, S.C. judges must require the devices for repeat drunken-driving offenders and for first-time offenders who are convicted of driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of at least 0.15 percent — nearly twice the legal limit for driving.
But drivers arrested on suspicion of DUI can avoid the device by refusing to give officers a breath sample. About two in five drivers refuse, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Those drivers have their licenses suspended. However, they quickly can get a temporary license from the Department of Motor Vehicles that lasts until their case is closed — a process that can take years.
A 2017 report by Mothers Against Drunk Driving also found Emma’s Law was being undermined by plea deals in which prosecutors accept guilty pleas but drop the ignition-interlock requirement.
Roughly 90 percent of DUI offenders who could have been required to use ignition interlocks haven’t had to use them, according to an analysis by The State last year.
Meanwhile, South Carolina remains one of the country’s worst states for drunk driving.
About a third of the 1,000-plus deaths on S.C. roads each year are caused by drunk driving. According to 2016 data, only Montana drivers faced a greater risk of dying in a drunk-driving accident than S.C. drivers.
Already, 32 states and Washington, D.C., require ignition-interlock devices for first-time DUI offenders. The bill up for debate at the State House would make South Carolina the 33rd.
It also would apply to drivers whose DUI cases still are pending. Currently, the state suspends their licenses but allows those drivers to get temporary ones for limited purposes, such as driving to work. That does nothing to stop offenders from drinking and driving, MADD contends.
Still, the cost of the devices – between $70 and $150 to install and then $130 a month to lease – is a major concern. The arrested drivers must pay for their own devices, even if they are exonerated.
If a case drags out a year, an exonerated defendant could have to pay more than $1,700 for the device.
State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, said he probably will support the bill but wants to ensure it doesn’t indirectly punish the children of drunken drivers who can’t afford the devices.
“I want to make sure the people we’re forcing this on can afford it,” said Fanning, whose concerns are shared by other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Tallon and other bill supporters say the cost shouldn’t outweigh the devices’ proven safety record. Anyone who can’t afford the devices could get help paying for them through a fund maintained by the state’s Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services, Tallon said.