Federal agency wants to lower DUI limit to .05, SC authorities disagree
MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Drunk driving is a dangerous, expensive and, all too often, deadly crime. Now there's a push to lower the blood alcohol content for drunk drivers to .05. Proponents say it's a life-saving measure, but not everyone believes it's the right solution.
"It boils down to the fact that the individual is making that conscious decision to get out and be intoxicated on the roadways," Horry County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Benton explains.
That conscious decision to drive drunk is something the federal government wants to stop. In May 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board unveiled several recommendations to end impaired driving on the nation's roads, but in the year since, many of their initiatives don't seem to be gaining steam at the state level - especially lowering the BAC limit.
"In a perfect world, no one would drink anything and drive," says 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson. "But unless we're going to start legislating that way, a zero tolerance for anything, you're going to have to pick a standard. And .08 seems to be about as good as a .05."
Richardson doesn't see a reason to lower the limit any more because a driver can already be arrested in South Carolina for a .05 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and charged with a DUI. It's just much harder for Richardson's office to prosecute. Richardson and Benton both agree the focus should be on the drivers causing the fatal accidents.
"The NTSB has done studies on this for years, the latest I personally read, that nearly 70 percent of fatalities involving drinking and driving nationwide, those individuals had a BAC of .15 or higher," Sgt. Benton says. "So if you look at it this way, that drop from .08 to .05 wouldn't have made a difference in many of these cases."
Richardson says the majority of DUI charges his office prosecutes are for drivers with a BAC of .08 to .12.
"So this recommended change in the law would have very little effect on what we see as felony DUIs simply because these people are much less drunk, even by their own breath test; and therefore, much less impaired than someone blowing a .12, .15," Richardson says.
According to the NTSB, at .05 BAC, a driver can be affected by reduced coordination, difficulty steering, and a slow response to emergency situations. At .08 BAC, a driver has problems controlling speed and concentration and could suffer short term memory loss.
"That individual that can go have one glass of wine, and be under the legal limit, is perfectly legal to drive, Sgt. Benton says, but he cautions, "Do we recommend that? No. We tell you if you're going to be drinking, don't drive your vehicle, period."
What worries Richardson the most isn't a need to lower the BAC limit, but the fact every time the limit changes, a new law is written. And with a new law comes new loopholes that make prosecuting drunk drivers even tougher.
"It's almost better to get to where you want to be and stick to that, and give it some time to work, as opposed to continuously changing or continuing to lower a certain standard," he says.
Lowering the BAC wasn't the only recommendation made. The NTSB also wants states to increase enforcements, such as checkpoints, and media campaigns, both things being done regularly in Horry County.
"We in the CAST Coalition, law enforcement, our business is to protect people, to be sure folks are safe. I think some think we're only out here to arrest people," Sgt. Benton says. "A big part of the CAST Coalition is that prevention and education as well. So if we perform a safety checkpoint and get zero DUIs, that's successful."
Even though the NTSB can't force the states to take action, eventually, Richardson says the federal government ties these types of recommendations to money. That's why every state eventually lowered the BAC limit to .08.
"More than any other charge, when you have to try a DUI, the jury members are sitting there saying 'but for the grace of God, there go I. Because I've done that. I've done that several times and I didn't get caught,'" says Richardson about prosecuting DUI cases. "Those are the things we're battling much more than a number."
In May of 2013, State Senator Gerald Malloy, who represents parts of Darlington and Marlboro Counties, introduced a bill to lower the legal limits in South Carolina. The bill died in committee and Senator Malloy said he's not sure it will be introduced again because there weren't many legislators in favor of it.
Anchor Paula Caruso reached out to the South Carolina Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to see if the organization supported the federal recommendation to lower the legal limit. A spokesman told her they always welcome a national conversation on the major problem of drunk driving and the tragedies it spawns, but they prefer to focus on their "Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving" rather than just lowering the BAC limit. You can read more about that campaign here: http://www.madd.org/drunk-driving/campaign
In all, the NTSB made 19 recommendations, including using ignition locks for all offenders. A similar idea was recently signed into law in South Carolina, and to target repeat offenders. To read their whole list of recommendations, click here: http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/reports/2013/SR1301.pdf
WMBF News asked our viewers if they think the BAC limit should be lowered from .08 to .05. Of those who voted, 26.9 percent said the limit should be lowered, while 73.1 percent were against it.
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