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OPINION: South Dakota's continuing DUI problem

On Aug. 21, the South Dakota Supreme Court has ruled that the state's DUI implied consent law was unconstitutional. Without explicit consent of a drunk driver, police must get a warrant to determine the blood alcohol content, unless exigent circumstances exist. The Legislature will have to revise DUI statutes as a result.

This ruling and South Dakota's DUI prevention practices are of particular interest to us, since our 25-year-old daughter, Maegan Elizabeth Spindler, was killed by an allegedly drunk driver on July 8, 2013, along with Dr. Robert Klumb in Pickstown. Ronald R. Fischer Jr., of Lake Andes, is awaiting trial on two counts of manslaughter and five other charges. His defense attorney requested the warrantless blood evidence be suppressed; the prosecutors argued that exigent circumstances existed in the hours after the double killing.

Unfortunately, DUI remains stubbornly commonplace in South Dakota. The Department of Public Safety on July 27 released the annual "Motor Vehicle Crash Summary" with 2013 DUI statistics. In his introduction, Gov. Dennis Daugaard claimed "great improvement" with 42 DUI fatalities.

"This is a significant decrease and is a good sign of the continued social abhorrence of this behavior," Daugaard said. Crammed full of data and statistics, the crash report makes for grim reading, even by professional statisticians such as ourselves.

Do the facts bear out the governor's claim? Our contention is improvements have stalled. One does not need a graduate degree in statistics for this conclusion; simply look at the data from the 2013 and 2007 crash reports.

First, the incidence of DUI is most important and the number of DUI crashes is a better measure than deaths. DUI crashes tumbled from a high of 1,265 in 2002 to 959 in 2007, a reduction of 24 percent. But since 2007, DUI crashes have remained stubbornly flat, just under 1,000 per year.

DUI fatalities are at half the numbers of the early 2000's, but deaths are also essentially flat in recent years, with high variability. While 2013's reduction is surely welcome, it came on the heels of a 43 percent increase the prior year. Automotive safety and trauma care also improved compared with the early 2000s, influencing the trend.

Annual DUI risk averages about one-tenth of a percent and also flatlined after 2007. This equates to approximately a 1-in-1,000 chance of a South Dakota resident being a DUI victim in any given year. When compounded over an 80-year lifetime, it is a 1-in-12, or an 8 percent chance, of becoming a DUI victim.

What accounted for improvements in the first decade of the 2000s? Most significant was the blood alcohol content was lowered from 0.10 to 0.08, effective July 1, 2002. Lower BAC definitively lowered the carnage and incidence of DUI, and all the trends improve after 2002. This has also been proven nationally with research.

Secondly, during the mid-2000s, South Dakota benefited from federal grants for DUI enforcement with regular checkpoints and saturation patrols. DUI arrests and convictions peaked in 2007 and have declined ever since. Arrests in 2013 were 26 percent fewer than 2007 and the lowest level since 2002. Even worse is approximately one-third of DUI arrests result in acquittals or plea bargains to non-DUI charges.

The evidence speaks for itself; after improvements in the mid-2000s, progress has stalled. All the trends confirm this conclusion.

Public safety is the governor's single most important responsibility. After our daughter's death, we supplied him with recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and other sources outlining simple, cost-effective methods to substantially cut DUI deaths, injuries and incidence, using proven laws and practices. None of these proposals impinge legal behaviors, nor is it a creeping nanny-state.

Despite our best efforts with two visits to his office, emails, phone calls, a presentation to his staff and a personal meeting, the governor decided not to propose any DUI reforms in 2014, saying it would not have the "intended effect" of reducing DUI.

The governor claims there is "social abhorrence" of impaired driving, but the sad fact of the matter is DUI is endemic in many parts of South Dakota. Binge drinkers and alcoholics do not share his abhorrence. The vast majority of deaths and injuries are caused by first-time offenders because there is so little chance of getting caught. The laudable "24/7" sobriety program, ignition interlocks or DUI courts simply do not deter first-time offenders, only stepped up enforcement and certain penalties do so.

Our only interest is to spare other families from the tragedy of the senseless killing of a loved one in a violent, sudden manner. This is simply a matter about the sanctity of human life. We don't live in South Dakota, but we feel it can be a model for all other states to emulate if it embraces true DUI reform. This would be the most fitting memorial for Maegan and Rob, and the countless other DUI victims.

In this election year, ask the governor and other candidates what they plan to do about this unacceptable risk to public safety. Ask them to fully implement all the safety board's recommendations into law and practice. They must provide adequate, permanent state funding for resource-starved local law enforcement agencies that bear most of the DUI burden.

There has been enough suffering -- both in our family and in over 11,000 South Dakota families of DUI casualties since 2000. Enough is enough.

— Gregg and Susan Spindler, of Cazenovia, N.Y., are the parents of Maegan Spindler, who was killed by an allegedly drunken driver in Pickstown in July.

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