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S.C. may crack down on speeders

South Carolina lawmakers say they will likely review penalties for drivers with numerous speeding convictions after three people died in a wreck that police say involved street racing.

Carlene Carol Atkinson, 44, of York last week was being investigated by Charlotte police for what role she might have played in an April 4 wreck police say was triggered by two cars racing along N.C. 49 near the Buster Boyd Bridge. She has been convicted of speeding 14 times since 1999, state records show.

Atkinson has not been charged in the wreck, which killed a Winthrop University professor, her daughter and a Clover Junior High student. But she told police she was driving a black Camaro that police suspect was involved.

The only person charged in the wreck is Tyler Stasko, 20, of Matthews, N.C. He faces three counts of second-degree murder and remains in custody at the Mecklenburg County Jail.

Atkinson's prior convictions do not meet South Carolina's current threshold for a driver to lose her license.

But lawmakers interviewed last week by The Herald said it's time to review those guidelines.

"It would be hard for me to believe that somebody could get (14) tickets in a 10-year period and not lose their license for points," said Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Columbia, chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee. "It clearly looks like that's something that needs to be looked at."

Any bill designed to change the law on suspending or taking away a driver's license likely would go through Harrison's committee.

State law says a person's license isn't suspended until it shows 12 points at one time. Points are assessed after driving violations. A driver gets half the points removed from his license each year.

If a driver gets close to 12 points, he can take a driving class and get four points removed. That class can be taken once every three years.

Atkinson's license shows 5 points, according to state Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Under another subsection of the law that addresses "habitual offenders," a person's license can be revoked for up to five years after 10 convictions that warrant four points on a driver's record within three years. That would include going more than 10 mph over the speed limit.

Four of Atkinson's convictions were for going more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit and came within three years, records show, including one for going 80 mph in a 55 mph zone.

But some lawmakers wonder whether current regulations have loopholes that let repeat offenders go relatively unpunished.

"If somebody has a certain number of moving violations over a certain period of time - regardless of whether they've gotten points back - that should be something that the state should look at," Harrison said. "Once you get a certain number of convictions over a certain period of time, it certainly shows a total disregard for the traffic laws."

Gov. Mark Sanford would be open to a change in the law, said his spokesman, Joel Sawyer.

"It seems ridiculous on its face that somebody with that many speeding convictions would still have a license," Sawyer said.

The difficulty in rewriting the laws is coming up with penalties that target repeat offenders without penalizing the wrong people, said Sen. Mick Mulvaney, R-Lancaster.

"I'm all for looking at it; it's a shame that we seem to be driven by tragedy rather than good governance," said Mulvaney, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "You want to do something, but at the same time you don't want to overreact."

Mulvaney said he's had casual conversations with other lawmakers about changing the penalties for repeat speeding offenders since Atkinson's driving record came to light following the wreck that killed Winthrop University assistant professor Cynthia Furr, her 2-year-old daughter, McAllister Price, and 13-year-old Hunter Holt of Lake Wylie.

Though open to changing the law, Mulvaney questions whether any change would stop repeat offenders.

"Some folks just don't act in accordance with the law," he said. "It would be easy for the Legislature to pat itself on the back and say we've tightened up the laws on speeding. ... But would it have prevented this accident? I don't know.

"The question is, are we going to think it through and find something that penalizes wrong-doers without punishing people who don't deserve it?"

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said Atkinson's driving record already has caused him to examine the law.

"It certainly adds to the debate of looking at how our current system is written when it comes to habitual offenders," Simrill said. "Anyone can make a mistake.

"When you're doing something 14 times in 10 years, it's more habitual than it is late for an appointment."

Under the current law, Atkinson doesn't qualify as a habitual offender. But Simrill said good often can come from tragedy, because it spurs an examination of laws and efforts to "makes the holes tighter."

"In all aspects, there are certain tweaks to the law that need to be made," he said. "Obviously, someone who is creating havoc on the roads, we want that person off.

"Anytime someone is risking others' lives, that needs to be dealt with."

Rep. Deborah Long, R-Indian Land, said she considers Atkinson a habitual offender, even if she doesn't meet the legal requirement.

"This is a shining example," Long said. "Driving is a privilege. You're involving everybody else that's on the road with you."

Other legislators also said they're open to reviewing the law.

"If the law as it stands now allows someone to have a license (with 14 speeding convictions) ... it's something we possibly need to look at," said Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill.

Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said it's hard to prosecute serial speeders in part because driving histories usually aren't available to patrol officers.

"The problem is that you end up with officers out on the road who don't have the time - and, a lot of times, the resources - to run a driver's history every time they pull somebody for speeding," Brackett said. "It would help for law enforcement to have that information immediately available."