A driver who causes a fatal accident could soon be automatically tested for alcohol or drugs under legislation making its way through the South Carolina General Assembly.
The controversial bill requires a law enforcement officer investigating the scene of a deadly crash to administer a field sobriety test on the at-fault driver; even if there is no evidence that the person is intoxicated.
Opponents said the bill goes too far and forces a person to undergo DUI tests that normally require the officer to at least suspect the driver is drunk.
The House on Tuesday amended what had been a tougher Senate bill that would have charged a driver with “vehicular homicide” if their negligence caused the fatal wreck. The House amendment passed 64-44. Eight Democrats joined GOP leaders to support the change, but nine Republicans opposed it.
State Rep. Kenny Bingham (R-Cayce) said the bill was in response to a constituent who lost a son in a collision with a suspected drunk driver. The other driver was never tested, he said.
“If you violate the law and… it results in killing someone else, all we’re asking is you submit to a field sobriety test,” he said from the House floor Tuesday. The bill is also being strongly pushed by Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington).
State Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) said the House version was a compromise. While Bannister voted in favor of the change, he seemed reluctant to endorse it: “It is further than we have gone in the past. It is at the request of those folks who want everybody to be tested for everything, including the kids in the back seat.”
Opponents criticized a section of the bill that requires the responding officer to judge whether or not the driver is physically able to undergo the test. Rep. Kris Crawford (R-Florence), an emergency room doctor, said he was uncomfortable with officers making that decision.
Crawford said it would be difficult for an officer to know if the driver was suffering a concussion or other internal injury after the accident. “The problem that we’ve learned from trauma is that it’s not obvious at all,” he said Tuesday, “I can’t even make that determination by just looking at somebody… It takes technology.”
Current law only allows the sobriety tests if the officers have a “reasonable suspicion” that the driver is intoxicated.
The bill is back in the hands of the state Senate. If the chamber votes to agree with the House, the legislation could head to the governor Thursday.
Knotts said he was okay with the House version, but would have preferred stronger penalties for reckless drivers.
“If you kill someone with a car, it’s a traffic ticket,” he told South Carolina Radio Network on Wednesday, ”If you accidentally kill someone with a gun, you go to prison.”