Originally created 03/15/03

Advocates keep watch on DUI law



AIKEN - Lowering South Carolina's legal blood-alcohol limit won't be enough to change the state's dubious distinction of leading the nation in drunken-driving fatalities, prosecutors and advocacy groups say.

Unless there's enough money in the state's cash-strapped budget to pay for aggressive enforcement of the stricter threshold, any bill the Legislature enacts might be toothless before it becomes law, they say.

And if the new law is overly complex, it could make it easier for drunken-driving cases to be dismissed on technicalities.

Even if the state reduces the blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent - which federal highway authorities demand South Carolina do by October or lose $63 million in road funds - prosecutors worry that lobbying by trial lawyers might riddle the new standard with loopholes that will make winning convictions a difficult task.

"What we want to do is at least preserve a conviction," said assistant Aiken County solicitor Everett Chandler, who handles many DUI cases. "Lowering the standard may help us met the federal requirement, but (the law) might hurt us."

"We are not talking about a problem here - we are talking about a crisis," said Betsy Lewis, the executive director of the South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Twin bills in the House and Senate to lower the DUI standard from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent are among more than 10 bills in the Legislature that deal with DUI laws.

An Aiken defense lawyer admits the state's drunken-driving law is already complicated but complains about efforts to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit.

"That law bothers me tremendously because different people have different tolerances," Andy Anderson said. "There are plenty of people that can drive with 0.08 that aren't guilty."

The state is hopeful a lower standard in South Carolina will reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, just as it has done in other states that have passed similar measures.

Most states have seen about a 7 percent dip in the number of accidents. John Hart, the spokesman for the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, said South Carolina would be happy to see a 5 percent decrease in alcohol-related accidents and fatalities.

"It's a little tough right now for our law enforcement folks because of the reductions and cuts they've had," Mr. Hart said.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol, under the Department of Public Safety, has been hit hard by budget cuts ordered for all agencies. The patrol has lost about $10 million in the past three fiscal years, but it will continue the "Sober or Slammer" campaign with funding from federal grants.

"There is no question that during lean budget times, our proactive enforcement sometimes must take a back seat to more routine calls for service and collision investigations," public safety spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said.

"Obviously when we had more troopers and a healthier budget, we were able to take a more proactive approach."

BY THE NUMBERS

  • South Carolina's drunken-driving death rate for 2001 was one death for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
  • Tied with South Carolina were Louisiana and Montana.
  • The national average was 0.63 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles.
  • About 56 percent of crashes in South Carolina in 2001 were alcohol-related.
  • Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

    Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.