March 24, 2014

Editorial: SC should require ignition-interlocks, to save innocent lives

DRIVING IS not a right. It’s a privilege.

DRIVING IS not a right. It’s a privilege.

Driving drunk isn’t even a privilege. It’s a crime. A deadly crime.

More people are killed by drunken drivers in South Carolina than in all but six other states. Not more people per capita. More people. Even though 23 states have more people than we do.

Look at our DUI laws, and you begin to understand why. We don’t set a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent as an absolute standard of drunkenness, instead inviting attorneys to con jurors into believing that this driver was perfectly sober at 0.08. Or 0.12. Even when the jury isn’t conned, the punishment hardly protects the public. We suspend licenses, but it’s easy to get a restricted license. Little wonder we have so many repeat offenders. Little wonder we have so many dead babies and children and parents.

The criminal-defense lawyers at the State House say those drunken drivers have families who rely on them to go to work and take the kids to school. Which strikes us as something they should have thought about before they cranked the ignition after a half-dozen beers.

For several years, though, there’s been an easy way to balance the needs of the families of drunken drivers and the safety of all the innocent people on the highways: ignition-interlock devices. These mini-breathalyzers prevent drivers from cranking the ignition if they have a specified amount of alcohol in their blood system. In the 20 states that require convicted drunken drivers to use the devices, the number of deaths caused by drunken drivers has plummeted — down an average of two-thirds.

South Carolina allows repeat offenders to have an ignition-interlock device installed rather than having their licenses suspended, but it’s an option, not a requirement, and few people take the option. Most drunken drivers either go through an administrative process to get a restricted license, or else they simply drive illegally.

This afternoon the House Judiciary Committee will consider a Senate-passed bill to require the locks for all repeat offenders and for first-time offenders who register a 0.12 — 50 percent above the presumed-drunk level of 0.08. The subcommittee that has been sitting on the bill for more than a year wants to increase that to 0.15.

We coddle drunken drivers so much that even this would be a huge improvement. We also coddle criminal-defense attorneys, or at least we pay way too much deference to the ones in the Legislature. As has been noted by people who advocate for the interests of crime victims, the Senate version of the bill would significantly reduce business for criminal-defense lawyers, by slashing the number of people who get suspended licenses and therefore need to go through an administrative process to get a restricted license.

Requiring ignition interlocks only for first-time DUI offenders who registered a 0.15 — nearly twice the presumed-guilty level — is just another way to coddle drunks and their lawyers. How else to explain even seriously considering that when the best argument they have is that the devices might occasionally fail to let sober people start the car — a pretty minor inconvenience when compared to all the people repeat offenders kill.

Frankly, we don’t see a good reason that the ignition interlocks shouldn’t be required for anyone who is drunk enough to be convicted. That’s what the Judiciary Committee ought to approve. That’s what the House ought to approve. That’s what our law ought to be.

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