With SC traffic deaths falling, adding troopers the next step to ‘Target Zero’

cwinston@thestate.comDecember 22, 2013 

— Wrapping up the safest year on South Carolina’s roadways since 1982, state highway safety officials are not satisfied.

For the first time in 31 years, the Palmetto State should finish the year with fewer than 800 traffic fatalities. Through Thursday, 717 motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians had died on the state’s roadways, according to preliminary figures from the S.C. Department of Public Safety.

That’s down 120 deaths from the same period in 2012 and continues a multi-year downward trend — a feat that safety officials say can be attributed to partnerships with local law enforcement officers and nonprofit groups, education efforts and enforcement.

But safety officials say we can do better. In fact, they say we can do a lot better. The new SCDPS campaign is “Target Zero: A goal we can all live with.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Phil Riley, director of the state Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs. “For us to one day, hopefully, reach zero (fatalities), it’s going to take everyone doing their part. The ones we’re trying to get on board right now are the motoring public. … We need their active involvement and participation in making the roads safer.”

While zero traffic fatalities throughout a calendar year is unrealistic, the campaign takes into account that it takes just one death to tear apart a family.

One of those families includes Travis and Jennifer Mayo. Their 15-year-old son, Brandon, was killed on his way to White Knoll High School on Dec. 6. A Lexington County man has been charged with felony DUI in the 8 a.m. crash.

“I’m not the first person to lose my son, and I’m not going to be the last,” said Travis Mayo on Sunday afternoon. “There’s going to be a lot more until they toughen (enforcement and penalties).”

One way South Carolina will be able to reduce the number of traffic fatalities, officials said, is by increasing the number of officers patrolling roadways. Enforcement efforts across the S.C. Highway Patrol focus on three core actions that lead to fatalities: speeding, seatbelt usage and impaired driving.

Prior to the Great Recession, there were 967 troopers staffing the S.C. Highway Patrol. But that number has been falling ever since, as early retirement buyouts, attrition and budget cuts have dealt a mighty blow.

State funds for the S.C. Highway Patrol totaled $52.7 million in the 2008-09 budget before falling below $37 million in 2009-10. It has recently begun to grow again, but remains well-short of previous levels — $43.2 million in the current budget year.

Even after graduating 37 new troopers last week from a five-month training program at the Criminal Justice Academy on Broad River Road, South Carolina has fewer than 800 troopers patrolling the roadways.

While most counties across the state are seeing falling fatality numbers, Richland County is bucking that trend in a tragic way. The number of roadway deaths in Richland has gone up two straight years. Through Dec. 15, Richland County has 57 traffic fatalities in 2013, according to preliminary figures. That’s up eight from 2012 and 18 from 2011 and 2010.

The SCHP is taking note. Of the 37 new troopers graduating last week, eight will be posted in Richland and Lexington counties.

The staffing goal for the agency is to return staffing to 2008 levels by adding 200 troopers. A new class starting in January should have between 40 and 50 new troopers. And applications are being accepted for another class next summer.

“The thing about having more troopers on the road is that it allows us… to be more proactive in our enforcement efforts,” said Lt. Kelley Hughes with the S.C. Highway Patrol. “We can make more DUI arrests. We can have faster response times to our calls for service. Obviously, the more troopers we have, the better we’re going to be able to serve the citizens of South Carolina.

“We know it’s going to take time to get back up to that number.”

That will help troopers combat impaired driving that takes hundreds of lives each year. Nationally, 31 percent of traffic fatalities involve at least one driver who is impaired by drugs or alcohol. In South Carolina, the figure is more than 40 percent. Getting our state down to the national average would could dramatically reduce traffic fatalities.

Safety officials are also working to keep impaired drivers from taking to the roadways to begin with.

Troopers with the S.C. Highway Patrol talk to thousands of people every year about the dangers of driving impaired, using tools such as goggles that simulate the effects of alcohol and bringing in relatives of people who have been killed to influence driver behavior.

The public safety department also manages driver awareness campaigns with radio and television ads, billboards and S.C. Department of Transportation message boards to alert drivers to increased enforcement, campaigns such as “Sober or Slammer?” or to remind drivers to notify *HP when they see a driver who appears to be impaired.

Partnerships also play a key role, state highway safety officials say.

Working across more than 100 local law enforcement agencies to coordinate checkpoints and other increased enforcement efforts in a concerted network is paying dividends, they say.

So is working with nonprofits such as Community Action for a Safer Tomorrow in Lexington County to educate business owners, employees and customers about the dangers of not only impaired driving but also over-serving a customer at a bar or restaurant. Through grant-funded “responsibility toolkits,” CAST distributes table tents, posters and coasters to restaurant and bar managers and employees to encourage prevention of impaired driving before it can start.

“For us to see gains or make strides in fatality reduction, we can’t do it ourselves,” Riley said. “That’s why we depend on strong partnerships with law enforcement … and a host of other state, local and private agencies that we turn to. We’re all in this together. We can’t do this by ourselves. It’s a group effort.”

Traffic fatalities

Traffic deaths across the state are on a multi-year downward trend. But several Midlands counties are bucking that trend. The following show preliminary results for traffic deaths through Dec. 15 of each year:

COUNTY 2013 2012 2011 2010

Source: S.C. Department of Public Safety

Trooper decline

Since the budget crisis of 2008, the S.C. Highway Patrol has seen its trooper staffing fall each year. Here the number of troopers each year:

2008: 967

2009: 853

2010: 844

2011: 798

2012: 789

2013: 778

Source: S.C. Department of Public Safety

The following map shows preliminary traffic fatalities for each SC county through Dec. 15. Click on the county to see how many fatalities have occurred thus far.

Source: S.C. Department of Public Safety.

The following map shows the number of S.C. Highway Patrol troopers posted in each SC county. If a post includes more than one county, total number of troopers is divided equally among the counties. Click on the county to see how many troopers are posted.

Source: S.C. Department of Public Safety.

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