COLUMBIA - The South Carolina House on Wednesday approved a bill requiring more people convicted of drunken driving to install a locking device that prevents their vehicle from starting if it detects alcohol.
The House voted 112-0 on the measure named for a 6-year-old Lexington girl who died on New Year's Day 2012 when a repeat-offender drunken driver struck her family's minivan as they drove to church. Another perfunctory vote will return the amended bill to the Senate.
David Longstreet, Emma's father, said the bill's passage will help ease the pain as his daughter's birthday approaches next month, as Emma's Law could save other lives.
"It's a huge victory. Obviously, I wish it could have taken place three years ago. What Satan meant for evil God can use for good," said a teary-eyed Karen Longstreet said, adding "I would've rather had her here."
In Emma's case, the driver is serving 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to assault and felony DUI. Authorities have said Billy Patrick Hutto Jr.'s blood-alcohol content registered nearly three times the legal limit for driving, even hours after he says he last drank alcohol.
"Let's turn one of greatest tragedies I have personally witnessed into a good thing for the state and save some lives," said Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
To start a vehicle with the device, the driver must blow into it. The vehicle won't start if the test registers a 0.02 percent or greater.
Under the House version of the bill, the first conviction for driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or greater would put an ignition interlock on a vehicle for six months. A second conviction at 0.08 percent, the legal threshold, would keep it on for two years. A fourth DUI offense would make it a life-long fixture.
Currently, only people with multiple DUI convictions must install the device, which costs the offender about $130 a month. To help prevent cheating, it takes a photo of the person blowing into it. The bill also closes loopholes surrounding suspended, provisional and restricted licenses that allow repeat offenders to keep driving drunk.
And a driver couldn't dodge the device simply by refusing to take a breath test after being stopped. People convicted despite the refusal would have the device for six months.
"This is probably the largest step taken for public safety in years," said Laura Hudson, director of the South Carolina Crime Victims' Council.
The Senate version of the bill mandates the interlock device at 0.12 percent for first convictions. Some House members advocated keeping the threshold there or lower.
But Quinn urged his colleagues to support the House amendment.
"I wanted it much tougher. But this is our best chance to get a bill to save lives," he said.
Hudson said it takes care of most DUI-related deaths; 70 percent of DUI fatalities occur in wrecks involving a driver with a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.15 percent.