Two S.C. senators recently said the state doesn't need tougher drunken driving laws; it needs more state troopers.
The key questions is: Why can't we have both?
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, a criminal defense attorney, and Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, a former Columbia police officer, said lawmakers should focus more on increasing the number of state troopers, noting that the Highway Patrol in recent years has suffered cuts. Knotts added that more attention should be given to drivers who cause accidents by running stop signs or red lights while talking on cell phones.
Both Hutto and Knotts were present for a Senate subcommittee meeting that was called to review the DUI bill that passed in the House this year. That bill stiffened penalties for drunken driving, including a measure to increase driving license suspensions for people who refuse to take a breath test; graduated penalties depending on blood-alcohol levels; and authorization of the use of ignition interlock devices that prevent offenders from starting their cars if they are intoxicated.
We wholeheartedly agree with the assertion that more troopers are needed on the state's highways. South Carolina may be headed toward a record number of traffic fatalities this year. As of Oct. 21, 870 people had died compared to 851 for the same period last year. More troopers might have helped reduce that number.
But in addition to its overall high rate of traffic fatalities, South Carolina also has the fifth-highest rate of drunken-driving fatalities in the nation. Lawmakers need to address the flaws in our DUI laws.
Current laws make prosecution of DUI offenses difficult, particularly in regard to repeat offenders. Too many cases are pleaded to lesser offenses; too many chronic offenders are allowed back on the road without going through state-approved treatment programs; too many offenders still are driving even after their licenses have been suspended.
And it is not as if South Carolina is the only state confronting this problem. Most other states have significantly better records of bringing drunken drivers to justice and deterring drunken driving.
More troopers are needed to not only to enforce DUI laws but also to catch speeders and those who engage in other unsafe driving habits. But that does not preclude writing stiffer DUI laws, too.
The high rate of drunken driving fatalities is a problem that must be confronted from more than one angle. It isn't the either-or choice some state senators apparently would like us to believe it is.
South Carolina needs both more state troopers and tougher DUI laws.
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