Is South Carolina national capital for drunken driving?
Is South Carolina really the worst in the nation for drunken driving?
The question was raised a few weeks ago when figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that the Palmetto State is No. 1 in the percentage of deaths caused by drunken drivers.
In South Carolina, 44 percent of all traffic fatalities involve drunken drivers. That compares to a national average of 31 percent.
The figures prompted the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to send out a release Wednesday with the headline "South Carolina Worst in the Nation for Drunk Driving."
The increased scrutiny of the Palmetto State comes amid attention over the arrest of one of its top elected lawmen, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt, who was captured on video three days after Christmas stumbling and swaying during a field-sobriety test in Hanahan. He faces DUI and hit-and-run charges after he sped away from a crash site and a police cruiser at more than 100 mph, the footage showed.
DeWitt's agency was in the middle of its holiday "Sober or Slammer" campaign in which deputies stop drivers at checkpoints and make sure they haven't been drinking.
MADD suggested a couple reasons why South Carolina leads the nation in the percentage of fatalities that involve alcohol.
The first reason is that it's easier to beat a DUI rap in South Carolina than in many other states, according to Burritt.
State law requires all DUI traffic stops and sobriety tests to be recorded, but a judge can throw out the whole case for one imperfection in the video.
"When clearly impaired individuals are having their charges thrown out because someone stumbles out of the frame briefly or half a body part is cut off on the recording, we're not keeping the public safe from drunk driving like we should," Burritt said. "These are roadside dash cam recordings, usually at night. They are not traveling TV studios. We've got to bring back some sanity to this process."
MADD also took the opportunity to push for a law that would require anybody convicted of DUI to have an ignition interlock switch installed, so the car would start only if the driver's breath alcohol is below the legal limit. Two dozen states have passed laws requiring interlock switches for anybody convicted of DUI, and their DUI fatality rates have dropped significantly as a result, Burritt said.
South Carolina passed a more lenient version, called Emma's law, that went into effect in October. The new law requires a first-time offender with a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.15 to install an interlock switch for six months. Anybody convicted of DUI whose blood alcohol level is lower than that doesn't have to install an ignition-lock switch.
Ultimately, MADD would like to see a Driver Alcohol Detection System in every car, so it won't start if the system detects too much alcohol in the driver's breath.
Heath Hoffmann, associate professor of sociology at the College of Charleston, took issue with MADD's reasoning. He pointed out that South Carolina also led the nation in the number of fatalities per million miles traveled, not just fatalities involving alcohol.
"So, I disagree with MADD's focus on the problem being rooted in 'drunk driving' and suggest that there is a larger problem revolving around safety of our roads and highways in South Carolina combined with what might be S.C. drivers being less skilled drivers and/or a culture that worships the individual rights over the good of the collective, for example, the individual right to drive fast, ride a motorcycle without a helmet, etc.," Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann also pointed out a 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that found that one in five drivers admitted to driving within two hours of drinking alcohol. There was no estimate on how many actually were drunk.
"I'm not aware of any data to support the notion that S.C. folks are 'drunker' than residents in other states," Hoffmann said. "Nationally, I would say that driving under the influence is fairly normative."
The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Highway Patrol, also questioned MADD's spin of the numbers. The reason the percentage of alcohol deaths went up last year is that the overall fatalities dropped to a record low, spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said.
"Since 2007, overall traffic-related fatalities have decreased by 28 percent in South Carolina, and alcohol-impaired driving fatalities have decreased by 27.8 percent," she said. "Both categories continue to trend downward if you look at the overall picture."
Safety officials are also trying to discourage driving after drinking with campaigns like Sober Or Slammer.
"Our greatest challenge is changing the current culture so that it is no longer OK to get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or drugs," she said.