SUMTER, SC — Halfway through the "100 Deadly Days of Summer," officers are optimistic about road safety in South Carolina.
So far this year, the state has seen a decline in the number of traffic fatalities on its roadways. In 2013 to date, 330 people have died in traffic accidents statewide, down from 406 at this time last year. If law enforcement can maintain that rate through the end of the year, they hope to significantly reduce the fatality rate of 865 in 2012.
"Our goal is zero fatalities," said Lance Cpl. Brent Kelly with the South Carolina Highway Patrol.
To reach that goal, drivers will see stepped-up enforcement around the Fourth of July, as state and local law enforcement will increase their regular number of patrols and checkpoints around the Sumter area throughout the week of the holiday.
Kelly said Highway Patrol will begin a stepped-up enforcement weekend at 6 p.m. Wednesday to catch traffic traveling for the holiday. It will continue until midnight July 7. "That's a total of 102 hours," Kelly said. "We're going to be doing DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) saturation. You'll see more patrols, more traffic checkpoints and more seatbelt checks during the daytime and nighttime hours."
Every year, Highway Patrol steps up enforcement throughout the "deadly days" of summer, and increased traffic around major holidays is always a concern. Local agencies likewise are stepping up enforcement in advance of the holiday. The Sumter County Sheriff's Office will be partnering with Highway Patrol over July 4 to set up checkpoints around the county. "We're especially focused on major highways, (U.S.) 378, 15, 521. That's where you'll see more patrol cars," said Sheriff Anthony Dennis.
Dennis said his deputies' focus will be on DUI enforcement, trying to reduce the county's number of drunken driving deaths. "Hopefully our presence will deter it," the sheriff said. "We don't want anybody driving under the influence, and we really don't want any DUI fatalities."
Kelly highlighted roadways leading to and from the area's lakes as area troopers will search for drinkers on the highway and encouraged anyone who knows they will be drinking to plan ahead and designate a driver or plan not to drive back after having a few beers.
Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark said his officers will actually begin stepped-up enforcement this weekend, before the holiday gets underway.
"Historically, when the holiday is in the middle of the week, our idea is to increase our presence beforehand," Roark said. "We'll see more traffic this weekend because we're a causeway to the beach."
Police officers will be setting up patrols on the city's major thoroughfares and checkpoints in areas where they have received a high number of complaints from residents. Officers also used this weekend for "warrant saturation," seeking out suspects with outstanding arrest warrants.
Seatbelts are a special focus of the Highway Patrol this year because numbers show a declining rate of compliance, especially at night. State records show 47 percent of those killed in daytime wrecks are not wearing a seatbelt, but the number jumps to 73 percent once it gets dark.
"Compliance during the daytime is pretty good, but at nighttime, it diminishes because they think we can't see them," said 1st Sgt. B.K. Floyd, post commander for the Sumter/Clarendon Highway Patrol area.
That's an unfortunate mistake, patrolmen say, because the dangers facing drivers also go up at night.
"You have low visibility and more impaired drivers on the road," Kelly said.
Troopers are not only focusing on motorists, but also pedestrians and bicyclists to make sure they don't contribute to any wrecks.
"We've seen a lot of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities," Floyd said. "So I try to stop and speak with foot traffic and let them know they're not doing anything wrong, but just to be aware of where they're walking."
Anyone who notices any problems on the road this week, whether reckless driving, disabled vehicle or wrecks, is asked to dial *HP (*47) to contact Highway Patrol for assistance.