Sobering traffic death numbers

A police dash cam. (Wade Spees/File)

South Carolina drivers suffered 767 traffic fatalities in 2013, according to data released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And while that number alone is tragic, the fact that 44 percent of those deaths involved a driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above the legal limit is worthy of outrage. It was the highest percentage in the nation that year.

The numbers for the rest of the country are also shocking. With 10,076 deaths involving alcohol-impaired driving in 2013, roughly one person was killed every 52 minutes. The total represents a slight dip from 2012, in which 10,322 people were killed.

South Carolina's total traffic fatalities dipped as well from 863 in 2012, but the percentage of fatalities involving an illegal blood alcohol level increased from 41 percent to 44 percent.

The only other states with rates at or above 40 percent in the 2013 rankings were North Dakota, Connecticut, Montana and Texas. Utah lost the fewest motorists to alcohol impaired driving, with just 17 percent of fatalities involving a driver above the legal limit. The national average was 31 percent.

Interestingly, the rest of the South hovered much closer to the national average. Other than South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia were the next most dangerous states with 34 percent of traffic fatalities involving a legally impaired driver.

But South Carolinians don't necessarily drink much more than residents of other states. In fact, they fall almost exactly in the middle of the pack, according to the National Institutes of Health. And that makes the high rate of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities more puzzling.

One possible factor is the state's crumbling infrastructure. Too many of South Carolina's roads and bridges are dangerous even when driving completely sober. Indeed, the state ranked seventh for overall traffic fatalities per 10,000 residents in 2012, according to the federal Department of Transportation.

Nevertheless, drunk driving is an inexcusably risky decision anywhere and at any time.

But there is hope that South Carolina's drunk driving fatalities will drop in the near future. The state Legislature passed Emma's Law last year, requiring those convicted of a first offense of driving under the influence with a blood alcohol content of .15 or higher to install a breathalyzer ignition lock device in their cars. Drivers must be sober in order to start the engine.

The law's backers wanted a lower BAC threshold initially, which would have brought South Carolina in line with at least 24 other states that require the devices for all DUI offenders. Ignition locks have been found to reduce drunk driving arrests by as much as 70 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If Emma's Law is successful in South Carolina, lawmakers might consider expanding it to include more DUI offenders. It would keep more drunks off the road, and improve the safety prospects for other motorists whose safety they endanger.