Opinion

A tougher DUI law

State senators have a good model for a bill to crack down on drunken driving in the legislation passed last year in the House. The less they deviate from that bill, the better.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said last week that the primary targets of the legislation should be repeat offenders. Hutto was the leader of a Senate panel that reviewed the House DUI bill last year.

This represents something of a change of heart for the senator. In October, he and Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, said the state needed more state troopers, not tougher drunken driving laws. Knotts, a former Columbia police officer, said that more attention should be given to drivers who cause accidents by running stop signs or red lights while talking on cell phones.

While the state certainly could use more state troopers, we are relieved that the focus of the Senate debate has returned to sensible reforms in the DUI laws. In a state where 40 percent of repeat offenders are allowed to plead to lesser offenses, where 40 percent of traffic deaths on the state's roads can be attributed to drunken drivers and where repeat offenders are allowed to keep their driver's licenses, reforms are long overdue.

The House bill after which the Senate version is modeled institutes graduated penalties depending on blood-alcohol levels. Under this proviso, a first offender who is pulled over after drinking four beers would be treated more leniently than a chronic offender who has consumed a case of beer. Penalties would range from a suspended driver's license and mandatory treatment for first-time offenders to seven years in jail for fourth and subsequent offenses.

The proposed Senate bill does not include enhanced penalties for first-time offenders. Supporters argue that requiring everyone convicted of DUI to complete alcohol or drug abuse treatment programs would deter first-time offenders from making the same mistake again.

Gov. Mark Sanford objects to giving first-time offenders a break. Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer argued that first-time offenders are no less deadly on the road than second-, third- or fourth-offenders.

In one sense, however, that misses the point. Chronic offenders are less likely to be deterred by legal threats, more likely to drive while under the influence even if their licenses have been suspended and more likely to have high blood-alcohol levels. They are the most dangerous menace on the road.

Regrettably, the Senate bill reinstates a requirement that officers give additional roadside warnings above and beyond Miranda warnings to those stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence. The Senate version also weakens penalties included in the House bill for refusing to take a breath test.

Lawmakers need to ensure that the state's DUI laws provide prosecutors with the means to require drunken drivers to seek treatment, to take away their driver's licenses and to put chronic offenders behind bars when appropriate. The state has to do a better job of addressing a problem that claims the lives of more than 500 people each year on our highways, the second-worst rate in the nation.

We hope senators do not get sidetracked from passing a bill that closely adheres to the reforms approved in the House.

IN SUMMARY

State Senate should stick closely to the DUI reform bill passed last year in the House.

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