SC’s road death toll takes end-of-year upward spike

jmonk@thestate.comDecember 24, 2012 

State traffic fatalities, on track much of the year to be sharply lower than last year’s death toll, have lurched upward in recent weeks, alarming officials.

And since South Carolinians are now in a time of high December travel, state Highway Patrol officials are warning drivers to be careful.

“This is one of the most traveled” times, said Sgt. Bob Beres, who oversees the patrol’s community relations. “School’s out. People are traveling. Everyone’s trying to get their last Christmas party in. You also have shoppers trying to get their last presents before Christmas also.”

Alcohol and lack of seat belt use continue to be a major cause of fatalities, statistics say.

“In Richland County so far this year, 62 percent of all fatalities were alcohol related, and in Lexington County, 57 percent of the fatalities were alcohol related,” Beres said. Those fatalities involve cars, motorcycles and pedestrian deaths.

Beres urged people not to drink and drive this holiday period. “Have a plan before you leave home.”

As of Oct. 28 of this year, 662 people had died on South Carolina highways, compared to 702 in 2011 – a difference of 40 fewer deaths. That difference has now shrunk to six.

As of midnight Dec. 16, South Carolina had experienced 799 road deaths, just six less than the 805 at the same time last year.

The one bright spot, according to the statistics, is that deaths in one category of road crashes – car and truck occupants – are noticeably down this year compared with last year. There have been 531 so far this year, compared with 553 last year.

But for two bad months this year, S.C. would be on track to have a banner road safety year. January’s road fatalities lept from 45 in 2011 to 76 this January – a 68 percent increase. November’s totals jumped from about 55 in 2011 to 69 this year, in part because of several crashes that involved multiple fatalities.

The totals almost certainly would be worse except that some 90 percent of all South Carolinians are now wearing seat belts, thanks to a 2005 mandatory seat belt law under which motorists must pay a $25 fine if ticketed for driving without a seat belt.

“You have a greater chance of surviving a collision if you have a seat belt on,” Beres said. “I’ve worked a little over 3,000 crashes in almost 20 years, and I’ve never yet unbuckled a dead person.”

Safety officials credit the 2005 law with saving hundreds of lives each year. But at the time it passed, libertarians in the state Legislature widely predicted it would have little effect and denounced it as an infringement on their rights not to wear a seat belt.

Although only about 10 percent of South Carolinians in passenger vehicles now don’t wear seat belts, those 10 percent unrestrained persons accounted for 59 percent, or 313, of this year’s fatalities to date, according to DPS statistics.

In Lexington County, 80 percent of the people killed so far this year in motor vehicle crashes weren’t wearing seat belts, Beres said.

In Richland County, 95 percent of the people killed so far this year in motor vehicle crashes weren’t wearing seat belts, he said.

“Saving lives is a two-part process – law enforcement does its part, but citizens have to do their part, too,” he said.

Statewide, motorcycle and pedestrian fatalities are slightly up this year, with 106 motorcycle deaths so far, compared with 104 last year.

Many motorcyclists continue not to wear helmets, which safety experts say increases the survival rates in a crash. Sixty-nine of this year’s dead motorcyclists, or 65 percent of the 106 motorcycle deaths, were of helmetless riders, according to statistics.

As for pedestrians, 110 have died so far this year, compared with 109 last year.

The number of bicycle deaths – 13 – is so far even with last year’s toll.

But the number of moped deaths has increased from 23 to 33.

Statewide, Richland and Lexington counties rank in the top 10 counties this year when it comes to deaths involving motor vehicles and pedestrians, according to statistics.

The approximately 800 road fatalities so far aren’t just numbers to troopers, Beres said.

“That’s actually 800 doorbells we had to ring and tell them their loved ones aren’t coming home.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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