Death is riding Midlands highways this year.
And the deadly summer months are only just beginning.
As of Wednesday – before the Memorial Day weekend – Lexington and Richland counties ranked No. 1 and No. 2 of all 46 S.C. counties in the number of people killed on their roads.
Lexington had 27 road deaths so far this year.
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Richland – tied with Greenville County – has had 22 people killed so far this year.
The numbers are up from this time last year, when Richland had 16 and Lexington had 18 and both were outpaced by Charleston, Greenville and Horry counties. Most counties have far fewer fatalities.
Lexington County deputies this year have been making a special effort to curb speeding and DUIs, since Sheriff James Metts saw the numbers rise in late winter.
Alcohol plays a major role, safety officials say.
In Lexington County so far this year, 12 of the county’s 27 fatalities – or 44 percent – have involved excessive drinking, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s Office of Highway Safety.
State Highway Patrol Sgt. Kelley Hughes, a supervisor of Lexington County troopers, said, “The mindset in Lexington County is it’s OK to drink and drive.”
More motorists these days appear to be drinking in Lexington County all the time – not just on weekends, Hughes said.
“We see more and more DUI arrests during the day and during the week,” Hughes said. “And along with the DUIs, we see high speed and no seat belt.”
In Lexington County, the 15 or so state troopers have made 324 DUI arrests so far year to date. In Richland County, the more than 20 state troopers have made 337 DUI arrests.
In Richland County, 7 of 22 fatalities – about 33 percent – involved alcohol.
“It’s the same old stuff – people not wearing seat belts, driving under the influence of drink or drugs, not wearing motorcycle helmets,” said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. “Most of these deaths could be avoided.”
Last week, Department of Public Safety officials kicked off a public relations campaign to mark the upcoming “100 deadliest days” of the year – the time between Memorial Day at summer’s beginning and Labor Day. A higher number of fatal accidents occur in that time span than at any other 100 days in the year.
DPS director Leroy Smith said troopers will be targeting motorists who speed, drink and drive and who violate seat belt laws.
A recent survey shows that with the mandatory seat belt law, seat belt compliance is now 86 percent, and that is a major reason why motor vehicle fatalities have declined sharply in recent years, Smith said.
Sixty-four percent of those who die in motor vehicle accidents come from that small set of the 14 percent of motorists who don’t buckle up, Smith said.
“We’ll be aggressively targeting those who don’t wear seat belts” during the crackdown, Smith said.
A major focus of the Highway Patrol’s efforts will have to do with what Smith called “vulnerable roadway users” – motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians.
So far this year, of the 319 total roadway fatalities statewide to date, almost 29 percent of fatalities have come from the “vulnerable” categories.
That translates to, as of Wednesday, 43 motorcyclists, 39 pedestrians and nine bicyclists killed across South Carolina since Jan. 1.
Tom Crosby, of the motorists’ advocacy group AAA of the Carolinas, said parents should not forget that summer also has deadly days for teens who’ve only had their drivers’ licenses a year or two.
Youthful passengers in a car being driven by a teen sharply increase the chances of that teen being in an accident, and the more passengers, the more dangerous the situation becomes as teens talk and text, Crosby said.
“We urge parents to discuss this with their kids,” Crosby said.
“One big problem with teens – they know these things can happen, they just don’t think it can happen to them,” Crosby said.
Watts said, “If only people would wear seat belts and not drink and drive – the number of preventable deaths is huge.”