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S.C. Worst In Nation For Percentage of Drunk Driving Deaths

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S.C. Worst In Nation For Percentage of Drunk Driving Deaths

 

South Carolina once again finds itself at the top of a “worst of” list. This time it is a list that reflects dire consequences for those involved.

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Palmetto State is the worst in the nation in regard to the percentage of traffic deaths involving drunk driving.

South Carolina had 767 traffic deaths in 2013. Of those, 335 (44 percent) were attributable to drunk driving. That is well above the national average of 31 percent.

{news} By comparison, 29 percent of traffic fatalities in North Carolina in 2013 were attributed to drunk driving. In Georgia, 25 percent of traffic deaths involved drunk driving. Utah, at 17 percent, had the lowest percentage of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the country.

While drunk-driving deaths in South Carolina declined by 4 percent from 2012 to 2013, the state still has a long way to go.

Steven Burritt, program director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) South Carolina, says he is not completely sure why drunk driving rates remain so high in the state.

“I’ve been trying to pin down what it is about our culture that makes it so much more difficult for people to separate the decision to drink and to drive,” Burritt says. “Systematically, in terms of laws and policies, there are certainly some things we could do better. By and large, my experience is that the law enforcement [officers] we have are very attentive to doing as much as they can with the resources available to do high-visibility enforcement, which we know drives down deaths. But certainly we know that their funding levels are not what they once were. We don’t have a fully staffed Highway Patrol. More resources for enforcement would certainly help.”

While the percentage of deaths connected to drunk driving is troublesome, South Carolina Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli points out that the trend is moving in the right direction. Drunk driving deaths in South Carolina have decreased by nearly 28 percent since 2007, she says.

Still, Iacobelli says, drunk driving remains a priority for the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

“Obviously, DUI numbers continue to be one of our primary concerns, from both an enforcement standpoint and an education standpoint,” she says. “That’s why the public sees so much on television, on the radio and in the news about DUI.”

In 2014, the General Assembly enacted Emma’s Law, which could have a positive impact on the state’s drunk driving statistics in years to come. The law will require first-time DUI offenders with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or higher to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle for six months. In the case of a repeat offender, any DUI conviction with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher will result in the installation of an ignition interlock.

The interlock device is installed in a convicted offender’s vehicle and prevents the car from starting unless the offender blows into the device and proves they have not been drinking.

“Emma’s Law was a huge step forward in terms of expanding the use of ignition interlock devices for people who get DUIs,” Burritt says. “But, the best we could do with Emma’s Law was to bring on first offenders with a high BAC of 0.15 or higher. In 24 other states, they do [interlock devices] for anyone who gets a DUI, regardless of BAC, on the very first offense. They have had some substantial reductions in fatalities.”

While South Carolina’s DUI stats trouble him, Burritt says he can envision a future where there is virtually no drunk driving. He says there is technology in the works that could accomplish that.

“The day is going to come, sooner than people think, where we will have no drunk driving,” Burritt says. “We are pushing for vehicle technology in the future that will not allow a drunk driver to operate a vehicle, even without having to do anything proactive, like blowing in a tube. It would sense their skin on the wheel or sense the air coming out of them when they sit down in the driver’s seat. That technology is coming along at a really nice pace. There should be prototypes on the road in the next couple years.”

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