COLUMBIA -- An estimated 500 repeat DUI offenders in South Carolina next year will have to blow into a device in their vehicles to prevent them from driving drunk.
The state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services on Tuesday unveiled the ignition interlock program, which takes effect Thursday.
"What we are talking about today is a giant step toward protecting South Carolina state's roads, streets and highways," said department director Samuel Glover. "If they do not get this device, they simply will not be able to drive in South Carolina legally, I should say."
The device, which looks like a walkie-talkie, fits on a vehicle's dashboard and is wired to the car's ignition system. The driver blows into the unit before starting the vehicle; if the driver's blood-alcohol level is more than .02 percent, the vehicle won't start.
In South Carolina, it is illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level of at least .08 percent.
The device randomly will require the breath test after the vehicle is running to prevent offenders from having someone else who is sober first use the unit.
Since 2000, South Carolina has had a law allowing though not requiring the devices. But a State newspaper investigation in 2006 found the old law was never implemented.
Last year, the law was changed to require the devices for offenders who have been convicted at least twice of drunken driving.
The program didn't start immediately because convicted drivers first had to serve one-year license suspensions, Glover said.
The precise number of affected drivers under the new law isn't known, though it is estimated to be about 500 yearly, said department spokesman Peter O'Boyle.
In 2006, nearly 850 people were killed and more than 7,000 were injured in alcohol-related wrecks in South Carolina, Glover said, adding, "All of this is completely preventable, however."
About 50 percent of all highway deaths in South Carolina are alcohol-related, and approximately 20 percent of all DUI convictions involve repeat offenders, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who pushed for the ignition interlock legislation.
"The bottom line is that DUI fatalities continue to be a major problem in South Carolina," he said during the press conference. "Clearly, if somebody gets a second offense, they haven't learned their lesson."
Lourie said the program has been used successfully elsewhere. New Mexico, for example, has reduced its drunken driving fatalities by 28 percent, he said, noting the state has the highest-per capita use of the devices.
Lourie said he hopes the ignition interlock law, combined with another new state law that toughens penalties for first-time and repeat offenders, will reduce fatalities even more.
Juliet Nader Smith of the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said her organization is "100 percent in support" of the ignition interlock law, though she added the national office would prefer to see it required for first-time offenders as well.
New Mexico, for example, is among eight states that either require or offer strong incentives for use of the devices for all offenders, according to MADD's Web site.
South Carolina's program will be administered by the state's probation, motor vehicle and drug abuse services departments.
Offenders will pay $70 to install the devices on their vehicles and an additional $90 monthly monitoring fee. Ken Wagner, the probation department's project director for the program, said the department will use $30 paid by each driver to set up a fund to allow indigent repeat offenders install the devices.
Two vendors Smart Start Inc. and National Interlock Service Inc. are approved to install and service the devices, though more vendors are expected to be added, Wagner said.
A Smart Start device was demonstrated Tuesday. The demonstrator had to hum while blowing into the device, Wagner said, explaining that humming prevents someone from using an aerosol can to spray air into the unit. The unit also takes a picture of the user.
Drivers receive points for registering blood-alcohol levels above .02 percent the higher the levels, the more points accumulated, which can result in an extension of the driver's participation in the program, additional alcohol treatment or further suspension of the driver's license.
Offenders also can accumulate points for failure to have the data from their device downloaded every 60 days at an authorized dealer.
The devices have to be used for two years after a second conviction, for three years after a third conviction, and for life for fourth and subsequent convictions.