SC DUI bill could be one of the nation's toughest

by: Greg Suskin Updated:

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - On Thursday, lawmakers debated a bill called "Emma's Law" that would require first-time DUI  offenders to have an ignition lock on their car.  The device prevents an intoxicated person from driving.   The bill is aimed at preventing first-time drunken drivers from repeating their crime.
 
"Anything that saves families, I think is a good idea," said Hester Addison-Benitez, who started an advocacy program in York County six years ago.
 
Benitez lost her husband and son to a drunk driver 18 years ago in Nevada. They had just dropped her off, and were both killed. Her son was engaged to be married.  Their memory turned Benitez into a fighter.
 
"Because of the way they died, I decided I didn't want them to die in vain," she said.
 
She moved to Rock Hill and launched a program called "stop impaired driving.”
 
The program holds monthly victim impact panels where drunk drivers sit in a room with the victims of DUI crashes and their families.  They hear the grisly, horrifying details of the aftermath of an alcohol-related crash.
 
It's a program that roughly 300 first-time DUI offenders have been through since Benitez started it in 2008.
 
On Thursday, she was keeping a close eye on "Emma's Law" being debated in Columbia.
 
Specifically, the bill would require first time dui offenders to have their cars fitted with an ignition lock if they register .12 or higher on a blood alcohol test.  That's 50 percent above the .08 legal limit.
 
 The bill has already passed in the state Senate.
 
State Rep. Gary Simrill of Rock Hill told Channel 9 he's optimistic about the bill.
 
"I think when it hits the floor of the House like bills before it that deal with enforcement of drunk driving laws in South Carolina, you will see a bill go before the governor before the end of this session," Simrill said. He also said the state should use technology whenever possible to help keep people safe.
 
Benitez said her goal is fewer devastated families, and that means getting tougher on first-time offenders.
 
"When you get off on that first time, you get a second chance to go back and maybe kill or injure somebody.  Anything that prevents that, I’m for it," she said.
 
On Thursday, a weakened version of the bill passed in a key house committee. Instead of requiring the ignition lock at a .12 blood alcohol level, it was changed to .15.  That's nearly double the legal limit in South Carolina.
 
The bill still must face a broader committee, and the full house before it's completely takes shape in a final form.