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Editorial: There's a way to prevent drunk driving. SC House needs to allow it.

Ignition Interlock Legislation

Members of S.C. MADD hold pictures of loved ones lost to drunk driving during a 2019 rally at the Statehouse to support requiring ignition interlock devices to be installed in the vehicles of everyone convicted of DUI or who refuses to take a DUI test. (AP Photo/Christina L. Myers)

What if you knew a way to make it impossible for people to commit crimes? A way that costs next to nothing and doesn’t restrict anyone’s rights. You’d jump on it, right?

Well, 34 states have jumped on the crime-prevention tool known as the ignition interlock device, which makes it impossible to start a car until a driver who hasn’t been drinking alcohol blows into a device. They don’t make everyone install the devices — just anyone who has a DUI conviction, and then only for a limited amount of time.

Across the United States, in 2019 alone, ignition-interlock devices prevented about 360,000 people who were legally drunk from starting their engines — and nearly 10 times that many people who had enough alcohol in their bodies to be legally prohibited from driving under the terms of their sentences. Just imagine how many accidents and deaths that prevented.

Only 1,879 — about half of 1% — were in South Carolina.

South Carolina had the 10th most drunk driving deaths that year even though 22 states have more people than we do, so there’s no reason to think that’s because we have fewer drunks trying to drive in our state. It’s because Emma's Law, passed in 2014, requires the interlock device only in extreme cases: for people who have been convicted of driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15% (nearly double the legal threshold for drunkenness) or convicted multiple times. 

The limitation of that law becomes apparent when you realize that the average drunk driver drives drunk 80 times before he or she is caught. And too many times, those drivers aren’t caught until they kill someone. So prevention is a lifesaver.

This month, the S.C. Senate again voted to require everyone convicted of driving under the influence to have an ignition-interlock device installed. The vote, by the way, was 41-1; a nearly identical bill passed 40-1 in 2019.

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S.28 also would close a significant loophole: S.C. law has a smart provision that says if you refuse to submit to a blood-alcohol test, you lose your license for six months, on the spot, even before a trial. But this smart law has an insane provision that allows people to go down to the DMV the next day  and get a temporary license that allows them to drive ... while their permanent license is suspended. Yes, you read that right.

It’s such an attractive alternative to a DUI conviction that more than 40% of people stopped for drunk driving refuse to submit to the test.

So S.28 requires people with suspended licenses to have an ignition-interlock device installed before they can get a temporary license. It’s hard to see how anyone could argue with either provision. Hence, the 41-1 vote in the Senate.

Steven Burritt, executive director of S.C. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, tells us that he can count on two hands the number of legislators who have told him they oppose the legislation. The problem is that the people who oppose it are very vigorous in their opposition.

And those opponents — most if not all of whom are lawyers who defend DUI clients for a living — are disproportionately members of the House Judiciary Committee, which has to approve the bill before the House will have a chance to vote on it. And for decades, the House Judiciary Committee has been a graveyard for bills aimed at closing the many massive loopholes in our DUI laws.

It’s time for that to change. House Speaker Jay Lucas needs to make this a priority. House Judiciary Chairman Chris Murphy needs to schedule a hearing and a vote on it, and we need a vote in the full House. We’ve allowed drink drivers to kill and injure innocent victims for far too long, as other states pass laws that discourage drunk driving, and even make it impossible for the most likely offenders.

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