Scoppe: Want a safer community? Start on the highways

Associate EditorFebruary 4, 2014 

— I WAS SCROLLING through a list of news stories that State reporters had posted recently to our web site when I was stopped by the words “Nine killed.” You have to select the article in order to see more than the first two or three words in the headline, so I immediately did so, as visions formed of a crazed gunman storming a local school or a horrific industrial explosion.

Then I saw the full headline, “Nine killed on SC roads over the weekend,” and I thought: “Oh, is that all it is? No big deal.” And I turned my attention back to the list.

Then I thought, “My goodness; what is wrong with me?”

A better question might have been, “What is wrong with all of us?” Because I’m hardly alone.

Let nine, or even three, people get shot at a mall or a school or a coffee shop, and we go into full-panic lockdown mode. Let even one person get killed in a robbery — or paralyzed in Five Points — and we demand that our laws be overhauled, judges be removed and our police presence be doubled, at least.

And we do need to be concerned when these things happen. We need to pray for the victims, and mourn with their friends, and consider carefully whether the killings point to flaws in our laws that need to be corrected, or merely reflect the fact that there always are going to be people who kill other people, regardless of the law. But those random killings pale in comparison to the slaughter on our highways. The random slaughter.

The fact is that we are at far greater risk driving home from work than we are walking down a sidewalk at night. Even a sidewalk in Five Points.

In 2011, the latest year for which numbers are available, 322 people were murdered in South Carolina, two-thirds of them shot to death. That same year, 813 people were killed on our roads. Yet we are unconcerned about the highway deaths; nearly oblivious to them. When we read about them, we say “Oh, is that all it is?”

Perhaps it’s because those deaths usually occur one at a time. Perhaps it’s because there’s usually no criminal intent. Whatever the reason, it skews our perceptions of risk, and it leads our policymakers to focus too little attention on our biggest threats, and too much on frightening events that are far less frequent, or likely to affect us.

You want to be afraid of something? Be afraid of a drunk driver. Be afraid of someone who’s texting a friend, or updating her Twitter account, while she’s cruising down the interstate at 70 mph. Be afraid of the guy who drives through a red light or across the center lane because he’s distracted by a flashing billboard, or an attractive woman on the sidewalk.

Those people, and even responsible drivers who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, kill every day, and often the killings don’t even get reported. People who shoot up schools or kill someone while they’re robbing a bakery are front-page news because that doesn’t happen every day. At least not in our state. The traffic deaths do.

We have an appalling number of gun deaths in this country, but precious few of them result from the sort of random violence that having an armed populace might — might — reduce. Just 11 percent of those 322 South Carolinians murdered in 2011 were killed by strangers; that’s 35 people, in the whole state. And you can bet that most of them lived in high-crime areas. That doesn’t diminish the value of their lives, or the tragedy of their deaths, but it does remind those of us who live elsewhere how little threat we face.

The best way to get murdered is to be related to or get into a relationship with someone who’s either mentally unstable or evil and domineering; 70 percent of our state’s murder victims in 2011 were killed by an intimate partner, family member or acquaintance.

Making it more difficult for people to get out of jail on bond will make us feel safer, but it won’t deter those friends-and-family crimes. Longer prison sentences are unlikely to deter such killings either, as they tend to be driven by passion.

There are things we could do that might reduce random killings, and bond reform is probably one of them, although it also will result in some innocent people staying locked up longer in county jails that already are bulging with people waiting months or even years for their trials.

There are things we could do that will reduce traffic deaths.

After years of struggle, our Legislature did one of those things — allowing police to enforce our safety-belt law — and it is paying dividends. Seat-belt use has climbed from 70 percent to 91 percent. More importantly, last year’s 751 traffic deaths marked the lowest number since 1982, when there were far fewer drivers, and reflected a steady decline from a peak of 1,052 in 2007, a year after police started stopping people for seat-belt violations.

It’s no accident that most people killed on our highways are not wearing safety belts, even though most people on our highways do wear safety belts. That’s because the people wearing safety belts survive the accidents; the people without them don’t.

We need to outlaw texting while driving, as all but 10 states do, and all but three other states do at least for minors. And we need to let police enforce that law as well.

We need to close the SUV-sized loopholes in our DUI law, which make it all too easy for anyone who can afford a good lawyer to careen through. We need to require ignition-interlock devices on the vehicles of everyone convicted of DUI, so they can’t drive after they’ve been drinking.

We need to require motorcyclists to wear helmets, and yes, we need to put more troopers on our highways and make improvements to our most dangerous intersections and roads.

Most of these changes wouldn’t require any extra money, but even the ones that do would save lives. And unlike the changes lawmakers keep making and considering to our criminal laws, they wouldn’t be fraught with negative consequences that offset some of the good they do.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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