Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Let’s focus on the big risks — and do something about them

AP

A FRIEND WAS wrestling with that little voice of concern about a business trip to New York in the midst of the media-induced uptick in terrorism terror when she came to her senses and concluded, “It’s safer than driving on I-26 every day.”

Indeed. An October PolitiFact analysis found that from 2004 to 2014, a total of 303 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Even after the San Bernardino attack that had my friend on edge, The New York Times reports that self-proclaimed Islamic jihadists have killed just 45 people here in the United States since Sept. 12, 2001.

Meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2013 alone, 611,000 Americans died from heart disease, 585,000 died from cancer, 130,000 died from “unintentional injuries” and — please take special note if you haven’t gotten around to getting your flu shot this year — 57,000 died from influenza and pneumonia.

But as important as it is to be cognizant of such comparisons, and as important as it is for all of us to adjust our lifestyles to protect ourselves from these very present dangers, it’s my friend’s point about driving to and from work that I want to talk about today.

As of Friday, 884 people had been killed on S.C. highways this year. Most of them did not die on Interstate 26. And truth be told, the number of highway deaths is far lower than the number of South Carolinians who die every year from heart disease or respiratory disease or diabetes or Alzheimer’s or in non-traffic accidents — and about on par with the number who die from the flu.

What makes the highway death rate important to talk about is the fact that it is so directly related to the laws that our Legislature passes — and doesn’t pass. In other words, unlike cancer and heart disease, and certainly terrorism, it’s something people here in South Carolina can do something about on more than an individual basis.

The day before the San Bernardino attack, yet another rating organization (something called 24/7 Wall Street) yet again reported that South Carolina was one of the most dangerous states to drive in, with a highway death rate that’s 60 percent higher than the national average. A big reason is our lax DUI law. According to the CDC, South Carolina is third behind only North Dakota and Montana for the rate of people killed in alcohol-related accidents.

A week after the 24/7 report, Attorney General Alan Wilson announced that he was working with the ride-sharing service Uber and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to “build awareness about the high rate of drunk driving in the state” and “ensure access to safe rides and reliable transportation options” for drunks who otherwise would be drivers. It’s a good way to augment good laws — but we still need good laws.

In 2014, the Legislature outlawed texting while driving, which over time should help hold down our overall highway fatality rate, but that’s all we’ve done in years to make our roads any less dangerous. The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a national group made up of consumer, medical, public health and safety groups and insurance companies, says we could reduce our death rate significantly by passing seven pretty straightforward laws:

▪ Require children to ride in booster seats through age 7.

▪ Set 16 as the minimum age for a learner’s permit.

▪ Restrict the number of passengers teen drivers can haul around in their vehicles.

▪ Restrict cell phone use by teen drivers.

▪ Require teens to wait until age 18 to get an unrestricted driver’s license.

▪ Require ignition-interlock devices on the vehicles of all DUI offenders.

▪ Require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

To that list I would add a law recommended by the Governors’ Highway Safety Association: Allow police to use cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners.

Oh, and one more, which is missing from most highway-safety lists because it looks to the casual reader like South Carolina already has done it: Pass a real illegal per se law, making it illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent. South Carolina has what’s called an illegal per se law, but it is so full of DUI-friendly loopholes that many police won’t use it, instead preferring the old law that requires them to prove that the driver’s ability to drive is impaired.

This sounds quite reasonable, until you recall that we don’t require police to prove that driving 100 mph in a 35 zone created a safety hazard, or that running a red light put other drivers at risk; they simply prove that we drove three times the speed limit, or ran the red light, and we’re convicted.

There’s not a highway-safety law that will protect us from terrorists; in fact, there’s nothing our Legislature can do to protect us from terrorists. But these laws will help protect us from the dangers that really ought to worry us. So, by the way, will getting that flu shot.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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