Help keep drunken drivers from cranking their ignitions

-A A +A

Alan Wilson

On New Year’s Day 2012, Emma Longstreet was going to church with her family at 11 a.m. when a car ran a red light and slammed into their van, instantly killing Emma and critically injuring her mother, father and three brothers.

After drinking until 5:30 a.m. and sleeping just a few hours that morning, the driver of the car, Billy Patrick Hutto Jr., still had a blood-alcohol concentration of almost 0.2, more than twice the legal limit.

Emma was just 6 years old when she was killed – a life cut too short due to an individual’s lack of responsibility. Sadly, this was not Hutto’s first DUI arrest.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, first-time offenders have driven drunk an average of 80 times before they are convicted. Every time a person gets behind the wheel while intoxicated, innocent lives are at risk.

A bill referred to as Emma’s Law was introduced by Sen. Joel Lourie and passed the Senate March 13, 2013. S.137 requires all repeat offenders and first-time offenders with a BAC of 0.12 or higher to use an ignition-interlock device – a mini-breathalyzer that measures a person’s BAC before the car will start – on their vehicle for at least six months.

This bill would eliminate ineffective license suspensions, allowing drivers to get back on the road sooner if they have the device installed.

This would enable them to safely commute to work or school, and by reducing the incidence of drunken driving, it would have the residual effect of reducing taxpayer subsidies of drunk-driving fatalities, estimated at $1.75 billion in 2011.

Currently, South Carolinians convicted of repeat impaired driving have the option of installing an ignition interlock, but the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services reports only 11.7 percent of DUI offenders have done so.

The 17 states that require ignition interlocks report significant results. New Mexico, for example, has seen a 60 percent reduction in recidivism for first-time offenders. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the devices reduce repeat drunk-driving incidents by an average of 67 percent.

The S.C. Department of Public Safety reports one person is killed or injured in a DUI crash every 2.1 hours.

In recent years, drunk-driving fatalities represented 41 percent of all state traffic deaths. South Carolina is among the worst in the nation for DUI-related deaths, at 46th, with 358 fatalities in 2012. We must act now to eradicate this reckless behavior. We can’t afford to let these actions go unpunished.

I met Emma’s parents and heard their heartbreaking story firsthand. Emma’s father presented me with a pink bracelet that says: “Don’t Drink and Drive. Remember Emma Longstreet.”

I prayed with him and vowed that I wouldn’t take the bracelet off until Emma’s Law had passed. I wear it every day as a reminder of the unnecessary crime of drunken driving and the many lives lost because of it.

The tragedy of Emma Longstreet and all victims of drunken driving are the catalysts for this legislation. While it has passed the Senate, it awaits a vote in the House. I encourage all South Carolinians to join the Longstreet family in this battle and contact your representatives to let them know you support Emma’s Law.

As a father of two children, it is important to me that the roads in South Carolina are safe. As another father of a teenager killed by a repeat DUI offender told me: “They call a man who loses his wife a widower, a woman who loses her husband a widow, a child who loses their parents an orphan, but there is no word for a parent who loses a child, as there are no words to describe it.”

Drunken driving is 100 percent preventable. It requires personal responsibility, coupled with necessary safeguards to protect our friends and family.

Alan Wilson is S.C. attorney general.