By Robert Kittle, Greenville News
Columbia, SC -- A tougher DUI bill that supporters say would save lives is being held up in the South Carolina Senate. The bill would require drivers convicted of a first-offense DUI with a blood alcohol level of .12 or above to install ignition interlocks on their cars.
Now, the state requires the interlocks for drivers upon a second or subsequent DUI. A driver is considered legally drunk with a blood alcohol level of .08, so this bill is targeting what are called "high-BAC" drivers.
Ignition interlocks are small devices installed on cars and they require the driver to blow into them before starting the car. If the device detects alcohol of .02 or more, the car won't start.
David Longstreet of Lexington has been at the Statehouse to urge senators to pass the bill. On January 1, 2012, he and his wife were driving their four children to church when a driver that police say was still drunk from New Year's Eve hit their car, killing their 6-year-old daughter Emma.
"It's a loss that, you know, you feel like you're living every day in hell, in a sense. It's a pain that's unimaginable for a parent to have to bury their child," he says.
He says the driver who hit his family had one previous DUI, so if this law had been in effect, he might not have been able to drive that morning.
The bill is on what's called "interrupted debate" in the Senate. Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, is holding the floor and is against the bill, worried about details like whether offenders will just drive their spouses' or friends' cars to get around the interlocks.
But Longstreet says 17 states require ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers. Does it work? "Just statistics from other states, anywhere from 38 to 50 percent reduction in fatalities," he says. "We're looking at last year we had 311 (alcohol-related deaths). We could probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 families not affected by a fatality."
Law enforcement officials say part of the problem with the current law is that the penalties are weak for not installing the interlocks, so the majority of drivers who are ordered to use them don't.
This bill would strengthen the penalties for not installing the interlocks.
Now, a first offense has a fine of $300, jail from 10 to 30 days, or both. Under the bill, a first offense for not having an interlock would be a fine of at least $500, 90 days in jail or six months home detention, and an extension of six months for requiring an ignition interlock.
But it's the repeat offenders who would really be hit hard. Now, a third or subsequent offense for not having a required interlock is a $1,000 fine and jail up to 90 days, or home detention from 90 days to six months.
Under the bill, a third or subsequent offense would be a felony, with a fine of at least $5,000, prison up to 10 years or home detention for three years, and extending the required use of an ignition interlock by three years.
The offenders would have to pay to install the devices on their vehicles. Ignition interlock manufacturers say they cost about $100 a month, but there's an additional charge of $30 a month, which will provide interlocks for those drivers who can prove they can't afford them, despite being able to afford a car, gas and insurance.
The Senate is expected to continue the debate Wednesday.