Originally created 02/11/99

Groups seek tough drunken-driving, bottle legislation



COLUMBIA -- South Carolina should go further to strengthen drunken-driving laws, including declaring drivers with a 0.1 percent blood-alcohol content legally intoxicated, advocates and lawmakers said Wednesday.

Current law allows a jury to infer a person with that reading is driving impaired, but does not require such a finding. Massachusetts is the only other state without the "illegal per se" law, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

"We need to send a message that we're not going to have people playing Russian roulette with our families out there driving impaired," Mr. Hayes said.

Though the General Assembly enacted get-tough legislation last year, Mr. Hayes and others say more must be done. However, they also realize it will be difficult. And the "illegal per se" legislation will face plenty of opposition from those who say it infringes on people's rights.

"I'm always concerned when you have a group ... that comes forward and proposes legislation that takes away a right, in this case a right to a jury trial," attorney Jack Swerling said.

Mr. Hayes, Attorney General Charlie Condon and members of the state Highway Safety Coalition also called on the Legislature to let voters decide whether South Carolina should give up mini-bottles. A plan to do so would lower to 0.08 percent the blood-alcohol level at which a jury can infer a person is impaired.

Advocates and restaurant and bar owners have said larger bottles would mean weaker drinks and fewer drunken drivers.