The holiday season is normally a time for happiness, joy and cheer. For the families of the 752 people killed on South Carolina roads this year, though, it won’t be.
State and local authorities said roughly half of those fatalities were caused by alcohol-related accidents.
“You take 40 or 50 percent of 750 people, that’s 325 people who may still be alive today,” said Sgt. Jake Mahoney of the Aiken Department of Public Safety. “That’s 325 families that aren’t grieving over the loss of their loved one this past year. That’s pretty significant.”
The state Highway Patrol will be teaming up with Aiken Public Safety and other local law enforcement agencies for the Sober or Slammer DUI Crackdown. The initiative, which is part of the national Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over crackdown coordinated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is spearheaded by the S.C. Department of Public Safety and runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 1. The goal is to curb the number of crashes and fatalities caused by motorists driving while impaired during the holiday season.
Lawmen will have multiple checkpoints and DUI saturation patrols around the state throughout the holiday season, during which officers typically see more impaired motorists on the road.
“People who wouldn’t normally gather together and have celebrations that would include alcohol, tend to do that more during the holidays,” Mahoney said. “Christmas and New Years – those types of celebrations commonly go hand-in-hand with alcohol.”
South Carolina is currently tied for No. 1 with North Dakota for the highest number of alcohol-related fatalities, and Mahoney said the state is normally near the top of the nation.
Officers said law enforcement presence is key in enforcing and deterring drunken driving.
“We know there will be a lot more people off during the holidays that will have opportunities to travel, and we want to keep everybody safe whether they’re living in the county or visiting the county,” said Lt. Chad Hyler of the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office. “The more people we can get on the roads, the more we can deter those people from thinking about driving after drinking.”
The Sheriff’s Office, like Aiken Public Safety and Highway Patrol, will have patrols and checkpoints around the county through New Year’s Day.
Mahoney said the campaign is as much about deterring people as it is enforcing the law.
“I would rather prevent 10 DUIs than make one arrest,” he said.
Authorities said the best way you can avoid a DUI is to plan ahead; Have a way to get home, whether it’s with a designated driver, public transportation, or calling a friend who isn’t impaired.
“There is no magic number of drinks that they can have and still be OK,” Mahoney said, adding that “one drink is too many to drive.” “Alcohol can impair an individual’s ability to drive well before that individual feels impaired,” he said. “You may not feel impaired. That doesn’t mean that alcohol hasn’t had an effect on your ability to do that safely.”
Lance Cpl. Judd Jones, with the state Highway Patrol, said troopers will be situated about every 10 miles on interstates.
“You see a trooper, most times you’re going to slow down and drive like you’re supposed to,” he said, adding that authorities need motorists to be on the lookout for impaired drivers as well. “We can’t do it by ourselves. If you want to make our roadways safe, it takes people doing what they’re supposed to do.”
If you see a driver who appears to be impaired, call the Highway Patrol by dialing *HP (47) or call 911.
“Once you choose to drive impaired, you’re not only risking your safety but also the safety of everyone else on the road,” Mahoney said. “An evening of indiscretion can have repercussions that can last a lifetime, not only with a DUI on your record, but the financial costs, the embarrassment and the burdens as a result of an arrest or conviction.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.