Emma’s Law needed to fight DUI in S.C.

March 29, 2014 

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    The amended Emma’s Law would loosen requirement for first-time offenders to use interlocking devices in their cars.

To move Emma’s Law, a bill that would require many first-time DUI offenders to install ignition interlock devices in their cars, through the powerful S.C. House Judiciary Committee, proponents had to compromise on the blood-alcohol level. If that is enough to gain the support of a majroity of House members, it was worth it.

Emma’s Law, named after Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old killed in 2012 by a repeat DUI offender, is designed to get tough on drunken drivers and reduce the carnage they cause on South Carolina highways. In 2012, the last year for which records are available, 358 South Carolinians died in DUI-related accidents.

South Carolina ranked seventh among the 50 states in sheer number of DUI deaths – not just the rate based on the percentage of the population. Clearly, the state needs to find new ways to clamp down on drunken driving.

The interlock device, which requires drivers to blow into a miniature Breathalyzer before they are able to start their cars, is used in 21 states, including South Carolina, for repeat offenders. But Emma’s Law would require the devices to be used by many first-time offenders as well.

Those with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent are considered legally intoxicated. Safety activists pushed to require first-time offenders who have a level of .12 percent or higher to install ignition interlock devices on their cars.

In the end, though, the committee agreed on a level of .15, meaning that fewer convicted drunken drivers would have to use the devices.

Critics accused lawyers in the Legislature, many of whom make money defending those charged with drunken driving, of raising the threshold too high. But the standard clearly delineates those who might just have had one too many from those who are well above the legal limit.

Lawmakers who supported the .15 threshold also noted that it is not simply an arbitrary number like .12, but one that already is a standard that applies in state law to license suspension.

Emma’s Law would require first-offenders who refuse to be tested on a Breathalyzer after being stopped, and who later are found guilty, to install the interlock device. The law also would close loopholes that enabled attorneys to mount appeals that allow people convicted of drunken driving to get back on the road without having to install the device.

Another provision allows offenders who find themselves in an emergency – such as a life-threatening situation – to appeal a punishment later if caught driving. That seems reasonable.

Some may argue that the bill has been watered down too much, but currently no first-time offenders are required to use interlock devices. Any law that increases the number of convicted DUI offenders using the devices is an improvement.

This technology works. It effectively prevents people from driving their cars when intoxicated.

There’s no good reason not to use it for first-time offenders who far exceed legal limits as well as repeat offenders.

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