South Carolina is already short on state troopers, meaning motorists have to wait longer for aid than in past years.
But that situation is about to get worse, officials say, because of state budget cuts.
No new troopers will be trained starting July 1, when the state starts its new fiscal year.
And this year's class of troopers - 46 men and women who have been training at the state's Criminal Justice Academy since January - may patrol S.C. highways for only a few months.
Budget cuts could mean they will be laid off July 1.
"The money is incredibly tight," said Mark Keel, director of the state Department of Public Safety. "I just don't know if we can afford to keep them on the road.
"It's sad. Some of these people quit jobs so they could come and train to be troopers."
About 815 troopers currently patrol S.C. roads, down about 160 from last year because of budget cuts, Keel said.
Public Safety, the state's largest law enforcement agency, has received some federal stimulus money to offset declines in state revenues, but it hasn't been enough, Keel added.
This year, the agency's "base" budget was $62 million, plus $15 million in stimulus money. Starting July 1, lawmakers propose to reduce its basic state appropriation before various add-ons to $55 million, plus $1.5 million in stimulus money.
The result? Fewer troopers on the road.
Richland and Lexington counties, for example, should have 50 troopers each patrolling highways, according to a Public Safety formula that takes into account the number of highway miles and licensed drivers in a county.
Instead, each county has 25.
Keel said his chief concern is that South Carolina, which has reduced its traffic fatality rate in recent years, will backtrack on its progress toward becoming safer. In 2009, 879 people died on S.C. roads, marking the first time since 1995 the number has dipped below 900.
Victims' advocates also are worried.
"This could be devastating," said Traci Thompson, the S.C. victims' services coordinator for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "South Carolina is second in the nation for alcohol-related fatalities. We need more law enforcement officers out there, not less."
Keel estimates his troopers locked up 2,700 more drunk drivers in 2009 than in 2008.
Laura Hudson, director of the S.C. Crime Victims' Council, said she has been impressed with Keel's commitment to getting drunk drivers off the road.
"He's really pushed hard toward making more DUI arrests," Hudson said. "It's so disheartening that (budget) cuts are being made across the board vs. (lawmakers) doing the hard work and deciding what is more important - things like the Department of Public Safety."
Keel said the budget cuts, which House lawmakers are debating this week, also would increase the waiting times for motorists who need help.
During a snowstorm that affected much of the state last month, some motorists waited up to two hours before troopers could come to their aid, Keel said.
"When there's an accident we have to respond to, people will have to wait longer," he said.
"We just don't have the troopers to get to them."
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.