Trying to fix S.C.’s deadly rural roads
Factions battle over solution for highest death toll in U.S.
Some DOT commisioners clash on the best use of road funds. A sign near the old Cooper River bridge in 1997 shows how long the Interstate 73 project has been supported. One commissioner says I-73 would provide a safer route to the beach, but another says the state should improve the roads it has before spending money to build new ones.
Troopers who regularly patrol South Carolina’s roads can list reasons why the deadliest rural routes in America are in this state.
There are cell phones and iPods, text- ing devices and motorists who drive while intoxicated.
Plus, there are those who don’t wear seat belts or put on a helmet to ride a motorcycle. What they have in common, officials say, is a pattern of inattentiveness.
“It’s not the roadways that’s the danger,” Highway Patrol Cpl. Bob Beres said. “It’s the person.”
South Carolina ranks first in the nation for rural road fatalities, with nearly five deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009, according to a report released Thursday by the Associated General Contractors of America. Florida was next in line with about 3.5 deaths
Heading into Labor Day, The Post and Courier collected theories and solutions behind South Carolina’s treacherous road conditions from some of the major players, including state officials and some of the contractors who lay the asphalt.
What can be done?
The Associated General Contractors of America, which advocates passage of federal legislation to address rural road deficiencies, said South Carolina leads in a category most other states avoid: fatalities on rural roads.
One part of the solution, they contend, is to loosen strings from Washington and increase road spending so that South Carolina could modernize thousands miles of deadly rural stretches.
“Even if the pavement is good, a road may be missing a guard rail,” said group spokesman Brian Turmail, citing the dangers of traveling rural parts of the state.
Dark rural roads here, he said, “are missing a lot of the safety features you see on an interstate highway, like guardrails and wide shoulders.”
Concentrating on them, he said, would make travel safer.
The report did not list any specific routes in South Carolina considered the most dangerous. But a separate study released last month by AAA Carolinas said Clarendon, Lee, Marlboro, McCormick and Williamsburg counties — all in the state’s farming belt — are the most dangerous in terms of fatalities.
Ideas in Columbia
Spending road money is a tug of war. In Columbia, the state Department of Transportation has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that are not ranked as a top priority.
Lawmakers and the commissioners they appoint to oversee the DOT regularly clash over how to make the best use of the state’s 16-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, locked in nearly 25 years ago, and the matching federal money that it draws to fund the agency.
They argue over whether the department needs more tax dollars to meet the goals of a safe road and highway system that is free of chronic traffic jams and an asset to economic development.
One of the biggest fights lately is whether the agency should borrow $344 million for a mix of projects, including $105 million toward the proposed Interstate 73, intended ultimately to connect drivers from as far away as Detroit to Myrtle Beach.
Danny Isaac, chairman of the transportation commission, supports building I-73 because it is inherently safer than the deadlier two-lane rural roads. For example, he said, interstates have cable barriers to block head-on collisions, and on the interstates, drivers don’t pull out in front of one another as they turn out of a gas station.
What’s more, Isaac said, improving the major arteries will contribute to economic development.
“We are trying to create jobs in the state of South Carolina,” he said. “We’re trying to give people an opportunity for the American dream. You cannot get those jobs created by packing potholes on rural roads. But that’s not to say that the patching of the potholes on rural roads does not need to be done. You can’t do one and give up the other. You have to do both.”
In short, Isaac wants more drivers on the highways, and fewer using dangerous routes.
Isaac’s fellow commissioner Sarah Nuckles disagrees with Isaac’s perspective. She said the commission has for years raided a pot of money set aside for road resurfacing — to the tune of $100 million — in favor of building the roads that the state’s most powerful legislators want.
The state should take care of the roads it has before adding more. “We cannot keep making political decisions and not expect to have fatalities,” she said.
What AAA says
Tom Crosby, spokesman for AAA Carolinas, has a blunt view of the problem. South Carolina’s lax attitude on addressing poor driving comes from “a culture of traffic lawlessness,” he said.
He cited South Carolina being among the last to adopt tougher DUI regulations, and not taking steps to address texting while driving. The state also was late in passing seat belt laws.
“Whenever there are suggestions, they are met with resistance,” he said, adding that the state is mostly libertarian in its driving laws.
Crosby said most accidents in rural areas are local problems. They involve people who are driving familiar routes on two-lane roads and live in the area but make fatal mistakes.
“They know that route very well and they drive very fast and they make one mistake,” he said, citing drinking while driving or missing a turn and then overcompensating.
Another factor is that the state has opted to put fewer troopers on patrol. “The South Carolina Highway Patrol has been consistently decimated over time in consideration to the miles driven,” he said.
Meanwhile, with no immediate solution in sight, the DOT issued a warning Thursday urging motorists to drive safely this Labor Day.