Lawmakers report progress on DUI bill

COLUMBIA -- An S.C. House-Senate conference committee appears to have resolved many of the sticking points between competing versions of a bill that would toughen penalties for drunken driving.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairman of the six-member conference committee, was confident about the compromises after two conference committee meetings Wednesday.

"I think we are very, very close," he said.

Martin said he would try to have the committee meet today to formally adopt the changes.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would create a tiered system tying penalties to the driver's blood-alcohol level and prior DUI record -- the higher the blood-alcohol content and more prior offenses, the stiffer the punishment.

Under some of the proposed changes tentatively agreed upon:

• The bill would adopt the Senate version's category language but would keep the House version's proposed penalties, which are stiffer for first offenders at higher blood-alcohol levels.

• New breath-test machines that are modified by the State Law Enforcement Division to comply with state law would be analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to ensure they work properly.

• Juries in DUI trials in which higher levels of alcohol are involved would be instructed to first determine whether the defendant was guilty, and then if that happened, to make a separate finding about the level of alcohol involved based on the categories in the bill.

The conference committee Wednesday didn't resolve differences between the versions dealing with how long a driver's license should be suspended for drivers younger than 21 who refuse to take breath tests.

The committee earlier agreed to other proposals, such as requiring all convicted offenders to undergo alcohol or drug treatment, and dropping the requirement that offenders be given multiple Miranda warnings by officers after being stopped.

South Carolina has ranked near the top nationally in the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths. Of 1,037 people killed in crashes in South Carolina in 2006, 523 -- or 50 percent -- died in alcohol-related wrecks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.