Kershaw County sheriff’s deputies, given new marching orders and more money to go after dangerous drivers, have been arresting more people for DUI and handing out more tickets for speeding than perhaps ever before.
And that is keeping road fatalities from DUIs and other causes down, Sheriff Jim Matthews said Monday.
Although four fatalities so far this year in Kershaw County can be attributed to drunken driving, two of those came from two young men from North Carolina – Jake Ziegler, 18, and Ray Pierce, 17 – who drove their Pontiac G6 off I-20 in Kershaw County on Oct. 13 and landed in the Wateree River. Their submerged car and bodies weren’t found for two weeks.
Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers confirmed Monday that toxicology tests showed that both Pierce and Ziegler, who were on their way to Myrtle Beach, had alcohol levels above the legal limit in their blood at the time of their deaths.
Around Kershaw County, residents say some driving habits have changed because of Matthews’ tough new policies.
“I have a friend who will not drink and drive now because of what Matthews has done – not even one drink,” said longtime Kershaw County citizen activist Johnny Deal, a former local Chamber of Commerce president.
County Council member Jimmy Jones said, “I used to get a lot of complaints about speeders down certain roads. I don’t get those complaints any more. People are appreciative of safer roads.”
In 2011, Kershaw County also had four traffic fatalities from DUIs.
But overall, the fatality trend is down since 2009. That year, the county had 18 traffic fatalities; in 2010, there were 14 fatalities; in 2011, 12; and so far this year, 12.
The deaths of the two N.C. teens were responsible for another I-20 Kershaw County death.
On Oct. 27, as officials were retrieving the young men’s bodies and part of I-20 was blocked, a 21-year-old Conway woman on the way to Winthrop University in the backed-up traffic was killed when a speeding driver rear-ended her stopped car.
Since taking office in January 2011, Matthews has made keeping road fatalities and accidents down a priority. Midway through 2011, he got $360,000 from County Council to buy four new pursuit patrol cars equipped with radar and video cameras and to hire four specially trained highway pursuit deputies.
His 24 road deputies are now under orders to make traffic stops, he said.
“It used to be, a lot of sheriffs wouldn’t allow deputies to make traffic stops – they were afraid they’d lose votes,” Matthews said. “More people are killed and injured in traffic accidents than in crime. If there’s something I can do about traffic, I’m not doing my job if I don’t do it.”
Increased traffic stops also have resulted in dozens of criminals being arrested on weapons, housebreakings, drug violations and other offenses Matthews said.
Deputies have also seized bundles of cash – more than $100,000 – in cars of suspected drug dealers stopped for traffic offenses.
“We’ve confiscated so much illegal money in car stops we’ve bought two new patrol cars with it,” Matthews said.
So far this year, Kershaw deputies have given out some 4,500 tickets for serious traffic offenses like excessive speeding. But they’ve given out far more warning tickets – some 6,300. Real tickets are only given in egregious cases.
“We’re trying to change behavior,” Matthews said. “We’re not out to ruin someone’s day.”