Originally created 12/18/06

Drunken driving is on rise in South Carolina



COLUMBIA - Along with Gary Lee's firefighter helmet, NASCAR cap and a partly empty Mountain Dew can, Edie Graham always remembers to bring two pictures when she talks about her son.

One of Gary Lee.

And one of his tombstone.

"I hold up the picture of my son, and I say, 'This is my son,'" she said. "And I hold up the picture of the headstone and I say, "This is where I have to go and see him. You don't want to have to do that.'"

Gary Lee Graham was 18 years old in March 2005 when he was killed by a drunken driver. Michael Beechle, of Wagener, is serving 15 years for the crime.

The tragedy stole Gary Lee from his family and friends. But it also highlights a problem South Carolina law enforcement officials, lawmakers and others are trying to combat, so far with limited success: how to keep people safe on the state's roads and, in particular, how to stop people from drinking and driving.

Alcohol plays a role in about half of the state's traffic deaths each year, said Lt. Tim Pearson, a traffic coordinator for the North Augusta Department of Public Safety.

Traffic fatalities are down statewide this year: 994 people have died on South Carolina's highways as of Thursday, compared with 1,045 during the same period last year.

However, the number of highway fatalities in Aiken County is up: 29 deaths as of Dec. 10, compared to 22 in the same period last year. Still, 38 had died in Aiken County by that time in 2004.

It's too early to release information on the number of alcohol-related accidents for this year because the numbers are incomplete and reports need to be verified, said Phil Riley, the assistant director of the state Department of Public Safety's Highway Safety office. But for 2003 through 2005, the total number of alcohol-related crashes in Aiken County was 132, 141 and 168, respectively, Mr. Riley said.

"I think you can see the trend is going up," he said.

Law enforcement officials expect that the state's new, tougher seat-belt law to lead to fewer traffic fatalities over time.

Now, attention is turning to strengthening the state's drunken driving laws, which critics say are full of loopholes that make it hard to prosecute cases and, as a result, to keep unfit drivers off the highways.

In Aiken and other counties where fatalities are up, law enforcement officials have handed out fliers reminding people that drunken-driving wrecks are preventable.

In a recent Cabinet meeting, however, Gov. Mark Sanford said he doubted that effort would have a significant effect.

Mr. Sanford is backing proposed legislation that links penalties to blood-alcohol content. Drivers with higher blood-alcohol levels would face harsher punishments.

The legislation has gone nowhere in past legislative sessions, though, and is being retooled.

William Bilton, who leads the Impaired Drivers Prevention Council, said a subcommittee will meet Wednesday to consider revisions to the bill.

If the state law discourages law enforcement from making arrests, "then we have a problem," Mr. Bilton said.

Lt. Pearson believes that increasing penalties is the right way to go. But it's part of a three-pronged approach of education, enforcement and engineering - i.e., improving roads - law enforcement is using to combat traffic fatalities.

Lt. Pearson said he can empathize, not just sympathize, with the families and friends who lost someone they love in a drunken-driving incident: It's how he lost his uncle.

"They're not there anymore for family reunions or Christmases," he said. "And all you have is your memories."

Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or kirsten.singleton@morris.com.

PREVENTABLE TRAGEDY


Alcohol-related traffic statistics in Aiken County:


          2003    2004    2005


Incidents  132  141  168


Deaths    5    15    9


Injuries    106  104  123



Source: South Carolina Department of Public Safety

- 464 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents last year in South Carolina, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


- That's 42 percent of the 1,093 people who died on South Carolina highways in 2005, according to the NHTSA.

MADD Event


What: Mothers Against Drunk Driving candlelight vigil


When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21


Where: Front of Aiken County Courthouse; rain site will be Public Safety building on Laurens Street. Refreshments will be served.