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Drinking and driving is a growing problem

With the holiday season upon is, law enforcement officers are taking measures to make sure the roads are safe. The reason, they say, is that South Carolina leads the nation when it comes to drinking and driving.

And that, they say, is no laughing matter.

The Palmetto State is second in the country when it comes to alcohol-related fatalities. But according to Lt. Dale Smith, traffic safety program manager of the South Carolina Justice Academy, South Carolinians simply don’t take that seriously.

“When we stop people, they say, ‘Why aren’t you stopping real criminals?'” he said. “But three times the number of people that are murdered die in traffic collisions every year.”

Last year, South Carolina had about 300 murders. However, a total of 920 traffic fatalities across the state involved a driver with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, the level at which a person is considered legally drunk, or higher.

The challenge, Smith said, is making people understand the severity of the problem. Most people simply don’t think of traffic violations as a crime.

“Traffic is a more violent crime than anything else that we do,” he said. “But most people don’t think of it that way. If I’m in Sumter and I murder someone, everyone wants the police to pull out all the stops to go and find that murderer. But when there’s a traffic collision and somebody dies, we don’t even think twice about it. We drive by white crosses on the road and don’t even think about it.”

Smith said that in the stretch between the mile markers 82 and 97 on Interstate 26, going from Greenville to Columbia, there are 15 crosses, yet very few equate those symbols with the person who caused them.

“Nobody would rob a bank 80 times a year,” he said. “But the average DUI driver drives drunk 80 times a year, and we don’t think anything about it.”

Moreover, for every driving under the influence arrest, he added, between 500 and 2,000 more drunk drivers go undetected. The average DUI violator operates under the influence of alcohol 80 times a year.

“That’s once every four or five nights,” he said.

Unfortunately, the problem seems to be growing worse. Arrests for DUI stood at about 21,000 just a few weeks ago. Last year at this same time, there had been fewer than 15,000.

The statistics do not bode well for the coming weeks. About 38 percent of all Christmastime car crash deaths are alcohol related, as do about 54 percent of all New Year’s fatal wrecks.

The good news is that South Carolina is one of the few states that requires law enforcement officers to go through a recertification program for field sobriety testing.

The program, which is sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, trains officers how to better identify drivers who are under the influence of alcohol. Officers participate in classroom teaching followed by hands-on administering of field sobriety tests, such as the “walk and turn,” to volunteers who have been drinking in a controlled setting.

“My next-door neighbor dragged me into this,” said Val Sawyer, a 54-year-old medical device salesman. “Three drinks in an hour and a half, and I feel fuzzy.”

After five drinks, Sawyer’s blood alcohol content was at 0.074 percent, just below the legal limit. He went into the classroom, where five groups of police officers from around the state administered the field sobriety tests.

Sawyer flunked.

“It’s harder than you think,” he laughed. “And I guess you don’t feel as drunk as you really are.”

Another participant, 21-year-old bouncer Mark Mosteller, was surprised to see his BAC at zero after a 60-milliliter drink of vodka. Five drinks later, however, he was at 0.11 percent, well above the limit.

“It took me awhile to get there,” he admitted.

Reporter Ashley Messervy, 25, however, blew 0.089 percent on the breathalyzer after just two 200-milliliter glasses of wine.

“I’m a lightweight,” she joked.

According to Smith, the way alcohol affects each person varies widely, and there are no set criteria. The only thing that drinkers can do is eat a good meal before consuming any alcohol, drink slowly, and stay off the roads, even if they’ve just had a few.

After all, it doesn’t take a BAC of 0.08 percent to be arrested. According to Smith, drivers can be arrested at any BAC if the officer believes that they’re driving “impaired.”

“Traffic safety is really something that we have to change the mentality of the public on,” he said.

source: The Item

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