Whenever we call for action related to public safety issues, it includes the unhappy prediction that nothing will happen until a senseless tragedy gets officials' attention. Right on cue, a fatal car crash last week on Hwy. 49 just across the S.C. border near Tega Cay has state lawmakers talking about closing loopholes that allow habitually reckless drivers to keep their license.
North Carolina police have charged a 20 year-old from Matthews, N.C., whose car struck another one driven by a Winthrop University professor and her young daughter, with three counts of second degree murder. The mother and daughter, along with a 13 year-old from Clover who was a passenger in the suspect's car, were all killed. Another possible suspect is a woman from York who has not been charged although police said she may have been drag racing against the Matthews man on Hwy. 49, leading to the wreck.
Revelations that the York woman has been convicted of speeding 14 times since 1999, according to state records, yet was still allowed to legally drive, has some state representatives talking about reforming South Carolina's motor vehicle laws.
Leading the charge is Rep. Jim Harrison (R-Columbia), chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee, who said, "It clearly looks like that's something that needs to be looked at."
Freshman Rep. Deborah Long (R-Indian Land) is also on board and a spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford said Sanford would be open to a change in the law. Sen. Mick Mulvaney (R-Indian Land), who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is more reticent. Although he said, "I'm all for looking at it," Mulvaney cautioned against lawmakers pushing through legislation for the sake of it.
"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."
He also said he's concerned that a change in the law would penalize those who don't deserve it. That one needs explaining. It seems straightforward enough to us: accrue too many violations that involve speeding or other examples of reckless driving and you lose the privilege of holding a driver's license.
As well intended as our state legislators may be on this issue, however, it seems they're missing the bigger picture - and possibly an oppurtuntiy. None of them are talking about the fact that if the accident occurred on the S.C. side of the border, murder charges would not be possible. In our state, the likely charge would be vehicular homicide, which is not a felony, has no minimum sentence for a conviction and a maximum of 10 years for each count. If alcohol is involved, a driver could be charged with felony DUI, which carries a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum of 25 years. Often in our state, felony DUI charges are pleaded down to the less serious vehicular homicide.
That's not all. Vehicular homicide is a so-called "51 percent" crime, meaning if someone is convicted and sentenced to five years in jail, they would be eligible for parole in just over 30 months. Clearly, the law needs to be strengthened to include much stricter penalties.
It's a shame that it took the loss of three lives to get officials talking about changing the law. Now that it's on their radar, they need to seize the momentum and not only make it illegal for habitual speeders and other reckless drivers to be on the road, but also severely punish those whose actions cause injuries and deaths.
Last week, we featured a page 1A story about a program available to high school students in the Fort Mill School District that teaches construction skills. A huge step up from the shop classes their parents and grandparents had available to them, this program immerses students in a wide array of craftsmanship. By the time they come through the program, these students can build anything from furniture to a house. That's impressive.
This program, like the auto repair course we also featured recently, not only gives students an in-depth look at what it takes to succeed in these trades and a possible career path, but also skills that can literally come in handy their entire lives. Students who plan to enter these fields after high school will have skills that are more likely to keep them employed in economic downturns like the one we're now experiencing. Students with this background who go on to college to pursue other careers will always have something else to fall back on to make a living if the need arises.
In addition, it's always more satisfying - and cost effective - to relax in a chair you made yourself or do a home or auto repair on your own.
One other nice aspect of these programs is they bring students from the district's two high schools together. The auto program is held at Nation Ford High and the building classes are at Fort Mill High and we're glad district officials don't see the need to have duplicate programs at each school.
Besides being a wise use of tax dollars, it encourages the natural rivalry that developed when Nation Ford opened two years ago to be contained to the playing field.