As the year winds down, South Carolina roads have claimed slightly more lives than previous years, but S.C. Department of Public Safety records show progress in cutting traffic fatalities.
Through Nov. 26, there have been 715 fatal collisions, which is seven more than reported through the same period last year, SCDPS records show.
Phil Riley, director of the office of highway safety and justice programs, said while he is pleased to see the number of traffic fatalities trending downward, he does not see the numbers as a success.
“Eventually, long term, we will reach zero,” Riley said. “Wherever it’s at, we are still not satisfied; we’re still not happy. Not until we reach that zero.”
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Last year, the state recorded its second-lowest number of traffic fatalities with a total of 767, and that number also marked the third time the state has recorded traffic fatalities below 800 in the past 50 years.
“Our goal was to bring together the safety community, law enforcement and individual motorists to recognize that these numbers represented real people and to work collectively toward zero fatalities,” said Public Safety Director Leroy Smith.
Public Safety’s “Target Zero” campaign is aimed at educating the motoring public, as well as vulnerable roadway users such as motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians.
One statistic that shows the most progress has been made in the reduction of motorcycle-related fatalities, which had one of the largest decreases in the year-to-date report. So far this year, there have been 80 motorcycle-related fatalities, 40 fewer than the same period in 2013, according to the department’s records.
Ed Harmon, assistant director of highway safety and justice programs, said the decrease is directly related to motorcyclists becoming more educated and trained before driving.
“Prior to last year, it was possible for an individual to just renew their permit every year and never come back and take a skills test to prove that they know how to operate a motorcycle,” Harmon said. “The (Department of Motor Vehicles) basically decided to enforce a policy on the books that said you have to make a good-faith attempt to perform the skills test before you are allowed to renew your permit.”
If someone interested in taking the skills test fails, they must wait two weeks before attempting to take the test again, but they can still operate a motorcycle with a renewed beginner’s permit as long as they have a licensed rider with them.
Harmon said people are more motivated to take training classes before taking the skills test because they can receive a full motorcycle license.
“This forces someone to consider taking a training class because if they know they are going to have to take the skills test, then a lot of people think ‘I might as well take the opportunity and take the training and demonstrate that I have those skills and get the endorsement,’” Harmon said.
Riley said moving forward his agency plans to make “Target Zero” a well-known phrase by personalizing the statistics for families across the state.
“The key question of all of this is what is the goal for your family?” Riley said. “You know what the answer is? Zero. The answer is unanimous. In this business, we preach this to our family ... that is what we want the general public to do.”
SCDPS has released a new seven-minute video showing people from around the state answering traffic fatality related questions they plan to carve into one-minute commercials to be aired throughout the state.
Riley said that although the goal of reaching zero traffic fatalities might be a long shot, one county in South Carolina was able to accomplish the department’s goal in 2013.
According to Sgt. Bob Beres, a S.C. Highway Patrol spokesman, Edgefield County recorded zero traffic-related fatalities and was the only county in the state to do so.
“Edgefield County went for an entire year without a single fatality,” Beres said. “So, there is no reason why everyone can’t get on board and do it for the other 45 counties. The biggest thing is limiting your distractions ... we have to pay attention to the road more than we ever have before.”
Beres, who educates motorists and pedestrians on traffic safety, said getting the buy-in of the motoring public is one of the crucial factors in making them aware of road safety.
Through Nov. 26, Richland County had 35 traffic fatalities, 25 fewer than for the same time period last year. Lexington County also showed a decrease in fatalities with 30 throughout the county,six fewer than last year.
The responsibility of limiting the number of traffic-related fatalities is not just left to the officials and motoring public.
Col. Michael Oliver of the Highway Patrol said troopers have made contact with nearly 10,000 pedestrians walking on roadways to give them safety tips.
“Our troopers routinely stop and educate pedestrians about which side of the road to walk on and what kind of clothing to wear,” Oliver said. “We have a ‘Wearing White is Not Enough’ campaign. Now we recommend reflective clothing for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. The key thing is visibility.”
Through Nov. 26, there had been 91 pedestrian fatalities, one more than the same time period in 2013. The department also reported 13 bicycle fatalities, one less than the same time period in 2013.
“Pedestrians have been really open to it,” Oliver said. “We’ve provided reflective bands to pedestrians and bicyclists. What we once thought that white was enough, isn’t enough. They have to take responsibility for themselves.”
Oliver said in order to help educate the public, enforcement is also a crucial factor in securing roadways. In 2008, there were 967 troopers throughout the state but that number decreased to 778 in 2013 because of the recession and changes to the retirement system in 2012.
“We are slowly coming back little by little,” Oliver said. “We are having two classes this year and expanding to three classes in 2016. We are doing everything we can to get our numbers up.”
Oliver said low trooper numbers has changed the model of how the Highway Patrol is able to operate because instead of proactive enforcement they are chasing calls for service.
But, even with decreased troopers numbers, the Highway Patrol was able to make more than 14,000 arrests throughout the year, according to Beres, who said it was “a significant amount for our agency.”
The percent of traffic fatalities involving people not wearing seat belts is down to 47.6 percent in 2014 from 55.3 percent in 2013.
“That’s the lowest I have ever seen,” Highway Patorl Lt. Kelley Hughes said. “There are more people wearing seat belts and less people dying because they aren’t wearing seat belts.”
As the holiday and travel season have arrived Riley said that if there is one thing he would want the motoring public to know, it is something he teaches his teenage drivers.
“Never assume anything and expect the unexpected,” he said. “A stoplight never stopped anybody. It’s when someone sees the light, takes their foot off the accelerator and puts it on the brake and stops for the light. Just stay alert because it could happen in a split second.”