It was a day of new beginnings. On New Year’s Day 2012, a young family — dressed in their Sunday best — left their home en route to church service in Lexington. Some distance away, a Gilbert man got behind the wheel of his car, heading home after a night of heavy drinking and partying with friends.
What happened next on that day is now a well-documented pivotal moment in South Carolina’s efforts to address a long-held trend that makes it one of the nation’s worst states for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Convicted DUI offender Billy Patrick Hutto, Jr. crashed his vehicle into the minivan carrying 6-year-old Emma Longstreet and her family. Tragically, Emma died. Billy Patrick later pleaded guilty to drunk driving and was sentenced to up to nine years in prison. Not too long afterward, discussions began about new measures to curb DUIs in South Carolina. On Oct. 1, Emma’s Law went into effect, requiring more people convicted of drunk driving in South Carolina to use a locking device that prevents their car from starting if they’ve been drinking.
“We are so pleased Emma’s Law has passed,” MADD National President Jan Withers says. “Drunk Driving is 100 percent preventable yet takes such a toll on the lives of those who endure the lifelong pain and suffering.”
South Carolina is the third deadliest state in the nation when it comes to drunk driving deaths, according to a study by 24-7 Wall Street. The latest data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that nearly 348 people died in DUI-related collisions in 2012.
“Even though we are seeing a decline in overall fatalities in our state, in 40 percent of those deaths, alcohol continued to be a factor,” South Carolina Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith said in a statement, kicking off the state’s annual Sober or Slammer impaired driving crackdown. “Our goal is to bring attention to these statistics and encourage the public to help us put an end to drunk driving in our state.”
By mid-August, traffic deaths in the Palmetto State had decreased by 17 percent compared to the same time period in 2013, the agency says. Law enforcement officials made more than 27,000 DUI arrests in South Carolina this past year.
“One person sustains an injury every two hours and on average, someone in South Carolina dies every day as a result of an impaired driving traffic crash,” says South Carolina Highway Patrol Col. Mike Oliver. “We need the public’s help. Make the smart decision to designate a sober driver and never let those close to you drive drunk.”
Jan adds, “Through our efforts, we are saving lives. The public recognizes that drunk driving is a problem on our roads and a threat to their safety.”
Steps in the right direction
In recent years, South Carolina has implemented several measures to curb impaired driving, and there has been a shift — both legally and culturally to address the issue, officials at MADD South Carolina say.
“Since MADD’s founding in 1980, the primary drivers of a drop [in DUIs] have been states going to a .08 BAC. MADD really had a huge role in putting a face to the tragedy of DUI,” says Steven Burritt, MADD South Carolina program director. “It wasn’t all that long ago people wouldn’t think twice if someone told them they had recently driven after drinking. Now, if you say you drove drunk people are generally outraged and offended. The information has been put out there to show how truly dangerous that behavior is.”
Penalties for DUI vary, from a fine of $400 and up to 30 days in jail for first-time offenders, to up to $6,800 and three years in jail for third-time offenders. As part of the national Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign, SCDPS’ annual Sober or Slammer utilizes state and local law enforcement to create high-visibility enforcement each mid-August through Labor Day.
Increased DUI enforcement is coupled with “Statewide DUI Crackdown in Progress” bulletins on South Carolina’s Department of Transportation’s message boards, and motorists are encouraged to report drunk drivers. The agency also uses television and radio commercials, billboards, social media and other communications tools to get the message to the public.
Advocates of tougher DUI laws say the passage of Emma’s Law was an important step to thwarting DUI deaths in South Carolina. Now, anyone convicted of driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level over 0.15 percent will be required to use ignition interlock devices on their vehicle for six months. Any offenders convicted a second time are required to use it for two years. The device also comes with a camera to make sure the convicted DUI offender is the person blowing into the breathalyzer tool.
“In the past, offenders could just wait out a suspension period and just drive or drive illegally,” Pete O’Boyle, State Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services spokesman, told media outlets. “That’s no longer an option.”
But more can be done, Steven says. “Our laws are not as strong as they could be,” he says. “We are not learning from all of the best practices that other states have. We were very excited to pass Emma’s law, but the question remains why we only give first offense .15 percent or higher when other states have done it for every DUI offender. We aren’t taking advantage of some of the other things we know other states have done well.”
Fighting DUIs through alcohol abuse intervention
At the root of South Carolina’s high DUI rates is alcohol abuse, experts say. In South Carolina it was estimated the total number of individuals with an alcohol addiction or alcohol abuse problems was 266,000, according to a survey by Alcoholics Anonymous. Approximately 17,000 of those individuals were ages 12 to 17, while nearly 89,000 were 18 to 25.
According to data from the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, roughly 76 percent of all teenagers in the Palmetto State have used alcohol at least once by the time they reach the 12th grade. NHTSA reports that 442 DUI crashes resulting in injuries in 2012 involved teens ages 15 to 19.
“Problems resulting from alcohol use are the number-one killer of young people ages 15 to 24 in both the United States and South Carolina, while alcohol-related accidents and illnesses account for 11 percent of all deaths in South Carolina each year,” a DAODAS report says. “Despite the risks, 20 percent of 12th graders admit to driving after drinking during the past year, while 33 percent of 12th graders admit to riding in a car with an impaired driver during the same period.”
For recovering alcoholic Annie, hiding her drinking started as a teenager, sneaking a few drinks from her home before heading out with friends. It gave her warm happy new feelings that freed her to do anything, she says.
Over the years, the drinking escalated, from filling miniature bottles to take with her as a young adult to stealing money for drinks and making excuses — any excuse — to have a drink. She neglected her children, but despite her attempts to hide her drinking, people around her noticed and felt the impacts.
“I turned from happy smiley to hell-cat with a couple of drinks,” Annie says, chronicling her story for Alcoholics Anonymous. “One day a group of kids sitting on the wall at the end of my street shouted ‘ALKIE’ at me. I was furious, burning with shame.”
There are services abound for individuals seeking help, from out-patient care to rehab centers. But experts and those recovering from alcoholism say services only work when the individual suffering from alcohol abuse makes the personal choice to seek help.
“I don’t know what it was that pushed me to make the phone call to AA,” Annie says. “But, I’m so grateful for the chance to live free from the obsession with alcohol.”