South Carolina has a dismal record when it comes to drunk driving and 7th Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy is proposing a radical change in hopes to make our roadways safer. Gowdy’s new proposal takes a driver’s level of drunkenness into consideration when it comes to punishment.
“Seriously impaired drivers are a greater risk to the public than slightly impaired drivers and criminal punishment should reflect that fact.” Gowdy said. “It makes no sense to punish someone who has had a case of beer too much the same way we punish someone who has a single beer too much. The drunker you are, the more of a risk you are to others and the greater the punishment you should face.”
The plan was unveiled this morning before law enforcement officers, victims of drunk drivers and experts in the field of alcohol and driving. Currently, drunk drivers are subject to the same penalties regardless of their level of drunkenness commonly called level of impairment.
Gowdy said he consulted law enforcement officials, toxicologists, medical doctors, crime victims, and lawmakers about his proposal. He found widespread support including support from the Speaker Pro Tempore of the South Carolina House of Representatives Doug Smith, who is going to introduce legislation consistent with Gowdy’s proposal.
Gowdy is driven to change the existing DUI laws because of what he has seen as prosecutor.
“Many of the worst drunk driving cases I have seen involve blood alcohol levels above .15. Therefore if we are going to get serious about preventing future drunk driving fatalities we have to have a punishment scheme that takes a person’s drunkenness into account,” Gowdy said. “Right now a person who blows .30 on a Breathalyzer faces the exact same punishment as someone who is less than 1/3 as drunk at .08.”
Both are against the law, but to say that both of those drunk drivers are equally likely to cause death or serious bodily injury is wrong. Although Gowdy said there are exceptions "as a general rule of thumb, at least in our Circuit, the drunk drivers who cause the most serious wrecks are the ones who are grossly intoxicated.
“To have a legal structure that does not draw a distinction between one beer too many and one twelve pack too many is short-sighted,” Gowdy added. “With drug crimes and financial crimes, the amount of drugs or money involved directly impacts the sentence the offender receives. So too, in driving cases the level of impairment should be taken into account.”
The new DUI plan has the backing of Spartanburg County Coroner Jim Burnett, Sheriff Bill Coffey, and Dr. Brownlee Lowry, a pathologist at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center, the Spartanburg County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others who have been directly impacted by the crime. Dr. Lowry, who conducts autopsies, including some on victims in drunk driving cases, applauds Gowdy’s initiative and supports the notion that the drunker a driver is, the greater the threat that driver poses to the innocent motoring public.
Victims of drunk driving accidents also support Gowdy’s initiative.
“While my life was spared, some have lost their lives because of people who think that they can handle drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car. What I have to say to them is that I only wish they would think first of themselves in a wheelchair or bedridden in excruciating pain or even worse - dead,” said Regina Crane, Spartanburg mother who was seriously injured in June 3, 2003 wreck that was caused by drunk driver.
“Innocent people are being killed and hurt every day by drunk drivers,” she added. “Some of this can be stopped by new laws that that would put these offenders behind bars before they hurt or kill someone.”
During his presentation this morning, Gowdy cited an American Prosecutors Research Institute study that showed a person’s likelihood of being involved in a serious wreck increases with the amount of alcohol in their blood. Gowdy also presented evidence on the impact various blood alcohol levels have on drivers. Clearly he said, the drunker you are, the greater a risk to the pubic.
A review of Spartanburg County’s Datamaster blood alcohol test results for 2003 calendar year provides some valuable insight on the depth of the local DUI problem. Nearly 700 people were offered Datamaster breath tests in 2003. One-third of the people refused to take the test, which is why Gowdy’s proposal increases the time a license will be suspended for those that refuse the Datamaster test. More than half those tested registered .15 or greater. The legal limit is .08 in South Carolina.
Gowdy and Rep. Smith hope the new bill will make people think twice before they drink and drive. And if people do drink and drive, help them understand that the more they drink, the longer they will be in jail.
In recent years, Spartanburg County has traditionally been one of the busiest places in the state for alcohol-related accidents. Spartanburg County recorded 267 wrecks in 2003 where alcohol served as a contributing factor. The wrecks accounted for 22 fatalities and 227 injuries, according to preliminary data from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. Spartanburg ranked second in the state for alcohol-related fatalities in 2003 and it tied for second in 2002.