A REPORT last month that named South Carolina’s rural roads the most dangerous in the nation seems to bolster the argument that we aren’t spending enough money maintaining and repairing our roads. And sure enough, we’ve seen a parade of political candidates and road-construction advocates using the report to reiterate that claim.
But in fact, the report from a road-construction lobbying group does not support more spending on South Carolina’s roads. If anything, it suggests that the problem is less urgent in South Carolina than in other states.
According to TRIP, which bills itself as a national transportation research group, there were 3.99 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled on South Carolina’s rural roads in 2012. That’s nearly double the national average of 2.15 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. That ought to concern us, and prompt us to action. But we need to be prompted to the action that’s likely to address the actual problem.
If the condition of our roads were the primary reason for the high death rate, then you’d expect that we’d also rank at or near the top of the group’s list of states with the most rural roads in poor condition, or states with the highest portion of deficient rural bridges. We didn’t even crack the top 20 in either category.
That’s not to say we don’t need to improve our roads. It’s pretty clear that we have not been spending enough to keep up with our road maintenance and repair needs. And that is hurting our economy and costing us extra in repair bills and time. What it’s not doing is playing a major role in driving up our highway death rate.
Just as it’s easy to think every problem needs a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s all too easy to translate any news about problems on the roads into a need for road repairs, if that’s the answer you’re looking for. It’s even easy to translate non-problems into problems that call for your favored solution.
Consider: A couple of weeks ago, AAA came out with its annual list of the biggest road and bridge problems in the state, and I got a note from a reader saying this was just more evidence that we needed to invest heavily in highway and bridge repairs. And again, we might very well need to do that, but this wasn’t evidence of that need. If the AAA decides to list the 50 most deficient bridges in the state every year, then there are going to be 50 bridges on that list. Every year. The question is how deficient they are.
The Greenville News article on the AAA report noted that the portion of deficient bridges in our state was lower than the national average. The Post and Courier’s article was even more blunt: “Conditions of state’s bridges improving.” It noted that the percent of the state’s bridges that are substandard had actually dropped to 21 percent, from 23 percent the previous two years.
Certainly, our roads would be safer if they were in perfect condition — if we had twice as many lanes on every road, and the lanes were twice as wide, and all the mountains were made low and the valleys raised up and the crooked places made straight and we didn’t have intersections. For that matter, our roads would be safer if we could get rid of all those pesky drivers.
The question is what the biggest problems are, and what we can reasonably do about them. The question is whether there are things we can do that don’t cost any money that would save as many lives as things that would cost a lot of money. And even if we want to spend a lot of money, shouldn’t we also do some of those things that don’t cost money?
The TRIP report doesn’t look at any possible causes for high death rates other than those that will result in more highway spending and therefore more work for the group’s members. But once you rule out the conclusion that the authors want you to jump to, there aren’t a lot of options left. Here’s the obvious one, the one we’ve known about forever, the one we keep coming back to year after year after year: our bad driving.
South Carolinians are unsafe drivers in part because of our stubborn refusal to drive safely — and in part because of our Legislature’s stubborn refusal to pass laws that will … encourage us to drive more safely.
Our lawmakers actually took two smart steps this year to make our highways safer: outlawing texting while driving, and requiring repeat drunk drivers and drivers with especially high blood-alcohol levels to have ignition-interlock devices installed that prevent them from starting their vehicles if they’ve been drinking.
Our lawmakers could, they should, take more steps.
Probably the most important thing they could do to reduce highway death rates is to get serious about drunk driving. The ignition-interlock law is a huge step forward, but it only works once someone is convicted, and our state has erected massive road blocks to conviction.
The biggest problem: The Legislature refuses to treat drunk driving the way it treats other highway safety laws and the way all the other states treat it. Rather than making it illegal per se to drive with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent, it practically begs jurors to conclude that a driver with a BAC of 0.08 percent, or higher, didn’t really look that drunk.
To understand how absurd our law is, imagine being clocked at 90 mph in a 55 zone but being found not guilty because you convinced a jury that you were in complete control of the vehicle the entire time. Our laws don’t even give you a chance to try that sort of defense — unless you’re charged with drunk driving.
Of course, drunk driving isn’t our only problem.
Distracted driving is a huge problem, but we don’t restrict cell-phone use — even among drivers who are so inexperienced that we don’t let them drive at night or with friends in the car.
Our death rates are high for motorcyclists, but we don’t require adults to wear helmets.
Elderly drivers are more dangerous than all but the youngest drivers, but we don’t require road tests or more frequent license renewals for older drivers. (We do require a vision test every five years, rather than the normal 10 years, but the 10-year standard is just asking for trouble for everyone.)
We prohibit the use of traffic and red-light cameras.
We don’t have particularly tough penalties for speeding in work zones.
And the list goes on.
It’s all an outgrowth of our resistance to anyone telling us what to do. And it all contributes, a lot more than the condition of our roads, to our deadly highways.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.