Special Report: D-U-WHY?

By Michael Maely - bio | email

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - If you mix driving with alcohol and you end up going to jail for a DUI, consider yourself lucky.

"They told me that Bill had been hit and killed by a drunk driver and you cannot imagine the disbelief, the denial I guess," said Vikki Miller, whose husband was killed by a drunk driver.

The Pawleys Island woman wears her husband's wedding ring that she made into a cross on her heart. She says she has worn it ever since his death 11 years ago.

"I just slid to the floor and I stayed on the floor for about a year," Miller recalled. "I wouldn't wish it on anybody."

Miller said her raw devastation turned to anger. That drove her to research the gravity of alcohol-related traffic deaths.

"Every year, we are killing five times the number of people that died on 9/11," said Miller, who has been working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Grand Strand authorities to combat the problem. "I've got to try to keep other people from going through this."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, her efforts and the efforts of police are up against fierce competition. In 2008, one out of every three fatal accidents is alcohol-related across the country.

But when you look at the data for South Carolina, that figure almost doubles, with nearly two out of every four fatal accidents alcohol-related. That deadly percentage makes the Palmetto State the second worst for DUI deaths in the country, with 403 people killed last year, people the South Carolina Department of Public Safety put up on billboards.

The only state with a higher percentage for alcohol-impaired deaths is North Dakota.

The safest states are Vermont, Utah and Iowa with only an average of nearly one of 10 deadly crashes related to DUI.

South Carolina is the 24th largest populated state, but No. 2 for percentage of DUI-related deaths. California, by comparison, has the largest population - more than eight times the population of South Carolina - yet ranks No. 13 for percentage of DUI-related deaths.

The state's neighbors to the north and south also fare better: North Carolina ties California at No. 13 with Georgia slightly better at No. 15.

WMBF News asked State Authorities what's being done to combat DUIs,

In addition to increased patrols, South Carolina officials are using a new DUI team and enforcement of a law that increases penalties based on the level of one's blood alcohol content to combat DUIs. They say they are writing more tickets.

"State police have already arrested 1,000 more DUI offenders this year than all of last year, and the new, more strict DUI laws that went into effect in February are helping," said Col. Kenny Lancaster, commander of the SC Highway Patrol.

Office of Highway Safety Director Phil Riley added, "It took a few years for the seatbelt law to yield results, I'd imagine it's going to take a while for the new law to take effect, as well."

The DUI problem is strong in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee. Of all 46 counties in the state, Horry County had the most DUI related traffic deaths in 2007 with 49. Those deaths slipped to 21 in 2008, coming in fifth highest of all counties, tied with Florence County, which saw an increase of seven.

"I didn't think I was too bad; I only had one or two," said 19-year-old Michael Robinson after Conway Police pulled him over for suspicion of DUI. "I know I shouldn't have done it, but we're teens, we don't think it's going to happen to us until it does. But I know I shouldn't have even chanced it."

"I take pride getting DUIs off the streets, I've got more than 45 this year already," said Conway Officer Josh Scott.

The overwhelming question of why the problem is so great in South Carolina seems to bring more questions.

"I wish I knew the answer," said Myrtle Beach Police Sgt. John Bertang. "If anybody has an ideas, I'd like to know the answer. We do our best with education, deterrents and enforcement."

Teresa van Vlake, traffic safety resource prosecutor, says South Carolina is the only state in the U.S. that doesn't have prosecutors to deal with first-time offenders.

"Sometimes inexperienced officers are forced to get off the streets and go up against experienced defense attorneys," van Vlake said. "That doesn't happen in other states."

The maximum penalty for killing someone while driving under the influence is 25 years in prison. The woman who drove head-on into Bill Miller, was sentenced to seven years; she was out in five years and eight months.

Miller thinks if judges would use the sentences that are in place and dole out maximum penalties, "Everybody who's a drunk is going to think about this twice."

Police do their part.

"If they break the law, we will arrest them and take them to jail," Bertang said.

Miller says if others on the road do theirs and alert the authorities if someone looks impaired.

"Please call 911 if you see something," she urged. "You could save a life. I don't want Bill's life to mean nothing."

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