COLUMBIA - A bill dubbed by senators Tuesday as "Peanut's Law" aims to slow down drivers in highway construction zones across South Carolina by increasing penalties and state troopers' presence.
Supporters told a Senate panel the measure is essential to the safety of drivers and workers in the inherently dangerous areas. The bill creates the crime of endangering a highway worker for anyone speeding or ignoring traffic signs inside construction or utility work zones. Half of the increased fines would go to the Department of Public Safety to fund troopers at the sites.
Elizabeth Ward of Georgetown told senators the driver who killed her 22-year-old son last August along Highway 41 in Williamsburg County received just two tickets totaling $300, for driving too fast for conditions and improper braking. Kenneth Long Jr. died in his third week on the job as a flag operator, she said.
"He took my son's life. That is not enough for what he did," Ward said in tearful testimony about her only child. "He had 1,500 feet to hit his brakes and he didn't. He left the road and my son ran for his life."
Ward, as well as Long's grandmother and aunt, wore neon shirts honoring Long that included his nickname, Peanut. His sister also testified.
Sen. Greg Hembree, the subcommittee's chairman, told Long's family he hopes naming the Peanut's Law bill provides some consolation.
"His death doesn't have to go for nothing. Because of this horrible thing that happened - this avoidable, senseless thing that caused him to lose his life - there will be other people whose lives will be saved," said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, a former solicitor. "He will be the face of this idea."
The current fine for speeding in a work zone is $75 to $200 and up to 30 days in jail.
As written, the bill would increase that to between $250 and $400 if no one's injured, and $1,000 if injury results. But senators discussed amending the bill to increase penalties.
The crux of the bill is providing a funding source for more troopers. Just having a patrol car or two visible in work zones will make them safer, as seeing blue lights causes drivers to slow down, said highway safety consultant Earl Capps of Indian Land.
He contends designated troopers could pay for themselves by writing three or four tickets a day.
"This is providing a mechanism to let offenders pay," Capps said. "The fine isn't the deterrent. It's the actual presence of law enforcement. It's the visual appearance that you'll be pulled."
Currently, 790 troopers work on South Carolina's highways, down from the 2008 high of 967, before the economic downturn forced deep budget slashes in law enforcement.
About 20 of the troopers are assigned to a team that patrols work zones, according to the Department of Highway Patrol.
The panel postponed voting on the bill, so senators could get a cost estimate. Hembree said he worried half of the increased fines wouldn't be enough to provide enough troopers for work sites statewide. Another option could be to require companies bidding on a construction contract to include the cost of providing troopers at the site, he said.
"The key is to get more troopers out there," he said. "The cost would go up. However, it would be fair for everybody. Everyone who bid would have to consider that cost."