THE STATE

ROAD DEATH RATE SOARS

Published on: 01/14/2001
Section: FRONT
Edition: FINAL
Page: A1
By JOSEPH S. STROUD, CHUCK CRUMBO and CHRIS ROBERTS
Staff Writers
Memo: South Carolina's Deadly Roads: A Special Report

TODAY: How bad is it?

MONDAY: Transfer truck crashes rise.

TUESDAY: Teenagers behind the wheel.

WEDNESDAY: First in motorcycle deaths.

THURSDAY: Last in road spending.

FRIDAY: The cost of crashes.

SATURDAY: Law enforcement: A thinning gray line.

SUNDAY: Solutions and the Legislature.

To comment on traffic safety or on this series, send e-mail to roads@thestate.com or call (803) 771-8777.

To take a driver knowledge test or to read previous stories in the series, go to www.thestate.com.

Illustration: PHOTO: COLOR & CHART: BW

Caption: 1. Traffic snarls on Interstate 20 after a tanker truck and small car collided in 1999, a year with 104,000 crashes that killed 1,064 people anad caused $2.18 billion in losses in South Carolina. JASON CLARK/THE STATE

2. CAUSES OF S.C. CRASHES, 1995-99: Driver error was the cause of most of the 554,000 crashes in South Carolina between 1995 and 1999. STEVEN A. LONG/THE STATE

3. WHAT S.C. DRIVERS SAY: South Carolina drivers have some concerns about driving conditons and traffic laws, a State newspaper poll shows.ROB BARGE/THE STATE

4. WHAT DRIVERS THINK ABOUT S.C. TRAFFIC LAWS

ROB BARGE/THE STATE


Brakes squeal and metal crunches once every five minutes in the Palmetto State, where an average of nearly three people a day die in wrecks on roads and highways.

While the trend nationwide is toward safer roads, South Carolina highways have been headed in the opposite direction, becoming more hazardous - so much so that in 1999, one of every 14 South Carolinians was involved in a crash of some kind.

Preliminary reports for 2000 indicate South Carolina will retain the third-highest highway fatality rate in the nation, trailing only Mississippi and Wyoming.

And yet when it comes to money spent per mile of state-maintained roadway, the Palmetto State finishes dead last.

Some safety advocates say the state's dismal safety record partly stems from South Carolinians' resistance to government edicts. They say new safety rules become roadkill when matched against the public's spirited independence - a fact of life not lost on politicians.

"I've never seen any real serious effort aimed at a concerted drive to improve highway safety," said Rick Todd, president of the S.C. Trucking Association. "There's a lack of political will which goes back to the culture of this state. There's a laissez-faire, leave-me- alone-and-don't-tell-me-what-to-do attitude."

Beginning today and continuing through next Sunday, The State will examine some of the factors contributing to our rising death rate on the highways, including:

* Young drivers. In South Carolina, teen drivers are dying at a rate that's 50 percent above the national average.

* Large trucks. The death toll in crashes involving tractor-trailers rose 35 percent in South Carolina from 1995 to 1999, faster than the national increase of 21 percent.

* Motorcycles. No other state has a higher fatality rate than South Carolina.

* Road design. State engineers know where outdated and poorly designed roads are causing crashes, but they often don't have the money to fix the problems.

* Law enforcement. South Carolina's state troopers say they don't have the staff to do what it takes to keep roads safe, and traffic enforcement isn't a priority for many county sheriffs.

* Alcohol-related crashes. The number of alcohol-related crashes in South Carolina is underreported, costing the state millions of dollars in federal aid each year.

Deadly choices. Public safety experts say South Carolina pays dearly for giving its drivers more freedom -from what kind of protective gear to wear to how fast and aggressively they can drive.

"People are losing their children," said Harris Pastides, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Public Health. "We're paying a high price so that people can exercise their individual freedom."

Although the high number of fatalities on S.C. highways has brought attention to the dangers that lurk there, the Legislature has given no clear indication that it intends to address the problem. Road improvements require money, and lawmakers say they are grappling with a $500 million budget shortfall.

State officials, including Gov. Jim Hodges, have warned agencies that they won't receive all the money they want for any number of worthwhile programs in this year's budget, including safety measures.

A series of high-profile crossover wrecks on the state's interstates the past two years prompted a move to build barriers in the medians of the most narrow stretches of interstates. That might reduce one type of hazard, but it only scratches the surface of the problem.

In 1999, only 14 percent of S.C. fatal crashes occurred on interstate highways, according to figures provided by the S.C. Department of Transportation.

Many who follow safety issues say the lack of emphasis on safety is typical in South Carolina. They say it hearkens back to the public's disdain for intrusive government.

"I think attitude has a lot to do with it," said Ree Mallison, director of the S.C. Safe Kids Coalition. "We think that we don't have to buckle up because it's our God-given right not to buckle up."

The state's independent spirit translates into loopholes and omissions in state law, Mallison said.

For example, S.C. law requires children under 4 to be harnessed in a child safety seat. But it contains exceptions for children being fed or suffering from a medical problem or "any distress which makes it impractical to use a child restraint system."

So if a police officer stops a car after seeing a baby unrestrained, the driver might avoid a citation simply by saying the child didn't feel well.

"That really is a pretty broad loophole," said Michele Fields, general counsel for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But that isn't the only area where South Carolina laws fall short.

In December, the Insurance Institute named South Carolina among the three worst states for traffic safety laws. Its report assessed state laws on a variety of measures, including safety belt use, driving under the influence of alcohol, and the safety of children up to age 13.

The battle over buckling up. Perhaps nowhere does the state's resistance to government intrusion register more intensely than in the ongoing debate about seat belts - which has emerged as a flash point in the conflict between safe travel and personal freedom.

Enacting a "primary enforcement" seat belt law in South Carolina would save hundreds of lives, according to a wide assortment of safety advocates, doctors, emergency workers and government officials.

Under the state's current law, motorists can be cited and fined for not wearing seat belts, but only if they've been pulled over for another offense.

Other states, including North Carolina and Georgia, have passed primary enforcement seat belt laws in recent years and seen dramatic increases in seat belt use.

Georgia passed primary enforcement in 1996 and saw use rates rise from 51 percent to 68 percent the following year. The state's highway fatality rate per 100,000 residents, which had risen for four straight years, fell from 21.4 in 1996 to 17.9 in 2000.

North Carolina passed its primary enforcement law in 1985, and usage climbed from 25 percent to 64 percent by the early '90s. That state's highway death rate per 100,000 residents fell from 24.1 in 1986 to 19.7 in 1999.

Across the nation, seat belt use in states that have primary enforcement averages 79 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That compares with 62 percent in the 36 states with secondary enforcement, including South Carolina.

But whether South Carolinians would support such a measure is another question. In a poll conducted for The State last month, only 35 percent said law enforcement officials should be permitted to stop and ticket motorists who don't buckle up without having some other reason to stop them. Sixty percent said no.

Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, said his constituents have let him know they don't want to see the state become more aggressive about seat belt use.

"They don't mind doing it. It's just the idea of the state telling me, here we go again, the government's going to decide what's best for me," Ott said. "It's not an anti-seat belt type thing; it's an anti-, get-government-off-my-back type thing."

That's exactly the issue, according to George Gibbes, an auto dealer who owns a farm in St. Matthews, in Ott's legislative district. He said he wears his seat belt most of the time, but doesn't want the government ordering him to do so.

"I don't need another set of parents," Gibbes said. "You can put a four-point seat-belt system in a car and require everybody to wear helmets, and then you'd reduce head injuries. My point is, where do you draw the line?"

George Hodges, a farmer and electrical contractor from St. Matthews, echoed that sentiment, and said he wasn't persuaded by studies showing that lives would be saved.

"I think it's a good thing to put your seat belt on, and it probably saves lives," he said. "But on the other hand, I think government is growing and growing and growing into everything we do, and it's just too much control."

Seats belts and race. Some African-American lawmakers have raised another concern - that primary enforcement might give police officers the green light to single out young black males.

A new national study, which said fewer blacks wear safety belts and are more likely to die in crashes than whites, also noted the possibility that primary enforcement might encourage racial profiling.

"Primary enforcement instills another tool for the law enforcement officer who engages in that activity . . . to stop minority males," said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. "But there is a conflict in that argument. Can that concern be outweighed by the need to save lives?"

Black motorists appear to share Neal's concern about the law being misused. The State's survey found that 68 percent of black respondents opposed primary enforcement, while 27 percent supported it, compared with a 59-37 split among whites.

But the national study, which came from a panel named by U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, nevertheless recommended primary seat belt laws in all states.

Doctors and emergency workers say the importance of seat belts to crash survival is obvious to them. More often than not, they say, the most severely injured crash victims weren't buckled up, while people who survived or emerged unscathed were.

"They play a huge role," said Marvin Fortner, a senior paramedic with Richland County Emergency Medical Services. "I don't think you can underscore how important they are, especially as a preventive measure. That's probably the single most important thing you can do."

Statistics support that assessment. According to the S.C. Department of Public Safety, 57 percent of those who die in South Carolina car crashes aren't buckled up, the same as the nation as a whole.

A legislative study committee last month agreed to recommend primary enforcement of the seat belt law in the 2001 legislative session, which began last week.

Driver error. Whether or not South Carolinians accept further mandates from the state, all the laws anyone can imagine won't prevent some wrecks from occurring.

The reason is simple: Drivers make mistakes.

In 1999, driver error was a factor in more than 85 percent of the deaths in South Carolina crashes.

Some mistakes occurred before a trip, such as drivers drinking alcohol or taking drugs. Others resulted from racing to an appointment or work.

Still others were caused by a driver looking away at the wrong moment, changing the radio station or dialing a cellular phone, for example, in the split second when he or she needed to be paying attention.

"There's no margin for error," Boykin Rose, director of the S.C. Department of Public Safety, told a panel of state lawmakers recently.

"When I was growing up, if you were inattentive and made a mistake, more than likely no one was around you, and you could recover from it," he said. "Today the volume is so congested that there's a domino effect."

Rose said he has seen drivers applying makeup, talking on cell phones and engaging in a variety of other activities that diverted their attention.

"The other day I saw a gentleman reading a book going down (Interstate) 26," he said.

The use of cell phones appears to be an exception to the rule that S.C. drivers don't like the state telling them what to do. In The State newspaper survey of 579 licensed drivers last month, 49 percent said cell phones should be outlawed while driving, while 40 percent said they should not.

The survey also revealed that many S.C. drivers don't hold other motorists in high regard. It found that 34 percent said the quality of driving here was worse than in other states, compared with 13 percent who said it was better. An additional 48.7 percent said the quality was about the same.

Everyday risk. The threat to innocent, law-abiding motorists seems to grow every day.

Not long ago, Lexington County postal carrier Ed Smith waited for a green light, then pulled out across Sunset Boulevard in his mail truck, heading across to the Lexington Medical Center complex in West Columbia.

Suddenly, from Smith's left, a woman in a red Plymouth Voyager streaked through two beats late, directly in front of Smith's vehicle. Smith slammed on the brakes, narrowly averting a broadside collision with the minivan, which never stopped or even slowed down.

"I've seen so many people do that," Smith said a few minutes after the near-collision.

Even after the light turns green, Smith said, he routinely looks left and right before driving into the intersection. If he hadn't been driving defensively, he said, "I might have been hurt - hurt or dead, because she was coming fast."

Smith has been driving the same West Columbia mail route for 10 years. But he says the dramatic increase in growth in the area has made driving more hazardous.

"You see this kind of stuff all the time," he said. "It's just carelessness. People get in a hurry and forget what they're doing."

Traffic through the intersection where Smith's near-accident occurred rose 56 percent in the past decade, according to DOT traffic counts.

More traffic is the trend statewide. People drove 44 billion miles on S.C. roads in 1999, double the miles driven in 1980. But the amount of new roads to handle the volume hasn't kept pace.

Traffic volume on interstates alone rose nearly 50 percent in the last decade, said Terecia Wilson, who heads traffic safety programs for the S.C. Department of Transportation.

"You've got the same basic number of roadway miles, but many more drivers," she said. "You've got to be more careful."

That increase in traffic volume also creates more tension between rural and urban drivers. Gerald Miley of Columbia, a collections manager at Surgical Associates of South Carolina, blames rural motorists for the state's poor safety record.

"They don't really drive; they aim," he said. "Aim the car in the general direction, and everybody get out of the way. And that works fine in a rural area, but you do that in an urban area and you can get killed."

Surviving. Almost 10 years have passed since Geraldine Walters, of Batesburg-Leesville, lost her son, Terald Anthony Gantt, along with his uncle and a cousin, in a fiery two car-crash.

All three were killed Sept. 22, 1991, when a car driven by a drunken driver going the wrong way on I-20 struck their pickup head-on.

Walters, past honorary co-chairwoman of S.C. MADD, doesn't necessarily think the carnage on South Carolina's highways is the result of bad laws or misplaced priorities of elected officials.

She thinks it is caused by drivers who play by their own rules.

"It's the people who refuse to obey the law, who refuse to take control and be accountable for their behavior who are responsible," Walters said.

Mallison, the Safe Kids Coalition director, thinks that goes back to the state's independent spirit.

A South Carolina native who has lived in Florida off and on for 20 years, she said she was shocked to find that Florida drivers seemed to be more orderly in the way they adapted to the rules of the road, such as merging into traffic on the interstate.

"It was just laughable when we came home," she said. "In South Carolina, man, you just take your chances. You go when the other guy doesn't.

"It's like downhill skiing, except you've got a big old engine."



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