As Emma’s Law – a bill that is the first significant effort in years to curb the state’s soaring drunken driving deaths – moved toward a state House floor showdown Wednesday, signs and bumper stickers were everywhere.
And businesses in Lexington County and at least one in Richland, including Lexington’s Marty Rae’s furniture store, are displaying messages on their stores’ marquees, urging the bill’s passage.
“That poor little girl. You can’t bring her back,” Marty Rae’s owner, George Carson Jr., said Tuesday. “It doesn’t hit home until it’s someone we know, then it wakes us up. The long-term effect is heartbreaking.”
Carson was talking about Emma Longstreet, the 6-year-old Lexington girl killed by a repeat DUI offender in 2012. Since the girl’s death, her father, David Longstreet, has mounted a crusade to close numerous loopholes in the state’s DUI laws that allow people accused of DUI to avoid trial and easily get another type of license that allows them to drive again.
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Since Emma died, more than 500 other South Carolinians have been killed by drunken drivers. Three-year-old Josiah Jenkins, the grand nephew of Columbia fire chief Aubrey Jenkins, was killed in a Columbia vehicle crash in March. A man with multiple DUI convictions has been charged.
On Tuesday, Chief Jenkins joined with David Longstreet to send a letter to each of the 124 members of the S.C. House of Representatives, begging them to get tough on hard-core DUIs. They are to speak at a rally on the south side of the State House beginning at 11:30 a.m., Wednesday.
“Please pass Emma’s Law,” they wrote. “Emma and Josiah could have been saved had the (Law) been in effect ... .”
The bill, authored by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, one of the legislature’s foremost child and highway safety advocates, has already passed the Senate.
Other business people spoke out Tuesday about the Longstreet’s ordeal.
Brian Peed, who owns Floor Boys in Lexington, said, “They’re a great family with high morals. The way they handled the loss amazed me. The way they showed their faith in the toughest time. Anything I can do to support that, I will.”
Chris Wooten, a trainer who runs Body Shop Athletics in Lexington, said, “I support the family.”
Emma’s Law Q-and-A
The bill’s centerpiece is a device called the ignition interlock. The bill’s aim is to lower the number of people killed and injured by drunken drivers in South Carolina. The state is among the nation’s leaders in numbers of people killed by DUIs each year. Emma’s Law is the first major effort to deal with the state’s DUI problem in years. Here are some common questions and answers about Emma’s Law:
What is an ignition interlock?
A device that hooks up to a car’s ignition. Anyone who wants to start the car must blow into the machine with a alcohol breath level of less than .02. (Mouthwash has no effect on the device.)
Who would have to use it?
All first-offense drunken drivers who are convicted of, or who plead guilty to, a first offense DUI with a blood alcohol content of .15 or above. That is almost twice the legal limit for impaired driving. They would keep it on for six months for a first offense. A second conviction – even for a .08 or greater – would keep it on for two years.
How is that a change from existing law?
Under the current law, only DUI offenders with multiple convictions have to use an ignition interlock device. All kinds of legal dodges now exist for people who plead guilty to or who are convicted of DUI first offense with .15 alcohol blood level to hire lawyers and get various kinds of temporary licenses. Emma’s Law would close loopholes that now make it easier for DUI-convicted motorists to drive drunk
What if someone refuses to blow on the Breathalyzer after a traffic stop?
Upon conviction or guilty plea to first offense DUI, they will have to use an ignition interlock for six months.
Can’t convicted DUIs cheat the device?
People can always cheat. However, safeguards exist. These include having the machine take a video of the person blowing into it so a DUI can’t have a friend start the car. Also, DUIs will get a special driver’s license. If police stop a DUI with this kind of license, and he’s driving a vehicle without an ignition interlock, he will be put on house arrest.
Who pays for the device?
The DUI offender. The cost is about $130 per month, plus about $75 for installation.
How reliable are the devices?
Some 35 states including South Carolina now use them. The technology has been around for years.
What has been the result elsewhere?
In states where the device is in state, meaningful drops – up to 30 or 40 percent – in DUI fatalities have taken place, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Who oversees the device?
The S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Service oversees the installation and licenses those companies that ignition interlocks.
If you go to the Emma’s Law rally
Where: South side of the State House
Time: 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Speakers: David Longstreet, Chief Aubrey Jenkins, someone from MADD, others
Note: Refreshments are free
Tracy Glantz contributed. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.