These roads lead to danger

Drivers should take extra care at seven collision-prone interstate intersections in metropolitan Columbia, the state Department of Public Safety advises.

Traffic dangers are most difficult to navigate along the western side of the capital city’s beltway system, an advocate for drivers said. Out-of-towners, especially, have a difficult time because the signs that alert motorists to what lies ahead are the worst in the Carolinas, according to Tom Crosby of AAA, the motorist assistance group.

At the top of the bumper-cars list of dangerous intersections is no surprise. It’s the intersection so notorious it has its own nickname: Malfunction Junction.

The short stretch where I-26 meets I-20 had 235 collisions that injured 43 people in the past two years, during the January through September period examined by The State newspaper.

“It’s almost like we could put a little substation out there and just camp out,” said Highway Patrol Lt. K.D. Phelps, a supervisor in Lexington County.

The count at Malfunction Junction is almost 100 collisions higher than the next-worst intersection, according to troopers and data from the agency’s Highway Safety office.

The other six on the list are:

• I-20 at U.S. 1

• I-26 at Harbison Boulevard

• I-20 at U.S. 378

• I-77 at Farrow Road

• I-77 at I-20

• I-20 at Alpine Road

Altogether, 761 collisions that injured 202 people happened at those intersections. Fortunately, wrecks there are rarely fatal.

Columbia relies heavily on its interstates, especially for its commuters from the suburbs. And every motorist has a story to tell. If you’re not involved in a wreck, you’re caught in the traffic backup that can last for hours and fray tempers.

As the busy Christmas week drive time begins, safety officials remind motorists to be extra careful because they face a highway system unique in South Carolina — the convergence of three interstates.

To drive home the point, the state public safety agency warns that police will be watching more closely than usual.

“We’ll have every available person on the road,” Director Mark Keel said, estimating an additional 50 troopers will work during holiday.

Drivers need help

Not surprisingly, the Top 7 intersections are along the metropolitan area’s chief commuter routes, where local traffic joins longer-distance travelers.

Crosby, of AAA of the Carolinas, said some of the blame should fall on the lack of driver-friendly road signs that properly warn of lane changes, turns and exits — particularly for those traveling through who don’t know the roads well.

“If you’re taking I-20 and going to I-26, you don’t get a lot of warning five miles out or seven miles out, and constantly reinforcing it,” said Crosby, who estimates he travels 16,000 miles per year in the Carolinas. He has worked for AAA for 30 years.

“It’s clear that it’s a problem,” Crosby said, after examining the crash data for the seven intersections. “This is one of those situations where drivers are confused and getting into the wrong lanes.”

That happens a lot at Malfunction Junction, where motorists zoom across several lanes to wedge their way onto exit ramps that lead them toward the coast or west toward Augusta or Atlanta.

That intersection poses an especially challenging set of circumstances. “When two interstates come together, you have a mix of traffic types: locals, the visitors and the pass-throughs. They need additional signage,” Crosby said of the latter types of drivers.

Besides being fed by a major commuter route for locals, Malfunction Junction also gets even more traffic from nearby Broad River Road, a four-lane thoroughfare.

The bigger picture

A broader examination of 227 miles of interstates in seven Midlands counties found that the number of wrecks along I-26, I-20 and I-77 totaled 2,653 through September, up 6 percent compared with the same period in 2009.

The number of injuries inched up by 15 percent to 423, according to the newspaper’s analysis of collision data from the Public Safety Department’s Highway Safety office.

Keel said a key to the problem is traffic congestion and speed. But those factors cut both ways.

“If people would just slow down and not follow so close, obviously we could have fewer accidents,” he said.

Even if drivers reduce their speeds, congestion sometimes leads them to make mobile telephone calls or send text messages, which distracts them from the road, he said.

The Midlands collision data showed the peak crash time is 5 p.m. as motorists head home. Almost twice as many wrecks occur during the afternoon rush than when drivers are commuting to work in the morning.

July is the worst month for collisions. And the three high-travel months of summer always bring more traffic and more wrecks.

There are rays of good news in the figures: Only one in three collisions results in injuries; the chance of a fatal wreck is .006 of 1 percent; and Midlands interstate deaths dropped by one in 2010, to 15, mirroring a statewide trend.

But wrecks on Midlands interstates are bucking another statewide trend. While the data show a 6 percent increase in the seven counties analyzed, the statewide collision rate dropped by about 2 percent, to 1,200 wrecks, said Phil Riley, director of the Highway Safety office.

The patrol, whose staffing has been cut 180 troopers in two years, still routinely saturates problem areas.

Keel said one of its most effective tools are motorcycle patrols. The cycles can cover more territory and catch the attention of more drivers, so therefore are greater deterrents. They also are more maneuverable and can respond faster than police cruisers to changing circumstances, he said.

“It’s amazing what kind of impact they have,” Keel said.

An interstate-by-interstate breakdown of the first nine months of 2009 and 2010 in the seven counties the newspaper reviewed shows:

• I-26 is the most dangerous Midlands interstate for wrecks – 1,330 that injured 423 people, up 51 from last year during the January through September period. Lexington County led the way in collisions both years among the five Midlands counties that I-26 traverses. Lexington County had 566 wrecks through September 2010, up one from last year.

Yet at 108 miles, I-26 runs 40 miles longer through the area analyzed than I-20, and 57 miles longer than I-77.

•  I-20 had 859 wrecks, up 92 from the 767 last year.

•  I-77 had 464, up six from 460 in 2009.

The state Transportation Department has been lengthening acceleration and deceleration lanes to make roads safer, Keel said. He cites the widening of the exit ramp at Harbison Boulevard and completed or planned widening of portions of other interstate stretches in the Midlands to better accommodate rising traffic volumes.

What’s to blame

By far, the biggest cause of the interstate collisions was motorists who don’t adjust their speed for weather or traffic conditions, the figures show. Police blamed driving too fast for conditions about 52 percent of the time.

Outright speeding, that is, exceeding the speed limit, was the cause in only two-tenths of 1 percent of the cases.

The next most common cause of wrecks was misuse of traffic lanes, including improper lane changes. That amounted to 15.5 percent of the total.

Distracted drivers were faulted 4.2 percent of the time.

Aggressive driving, which irritates many motorists, was blamed only 0.5 percent of the time, according to the data.

DUIs cause very few collisions on interstates, Riley said. But driving under the influence is a much bigger problem on local roads that have winding turns, are less well-lighted and have fewer road signs, he said. Along those roads, DUI is the state’s No. 1 cause of fatal wrecks, he said.

Still, the statewide fatality rate has been dropping for three years, said Col. Kenny Lancaster, head of the Highway Patrol. Nearly 300 fewer drivers have died on South Carolina roads so far in 2010 than in 2007, when 1,028 perished, the patrol’s figures show.

Law enforcement crackdowns have contributed to the decline, Lancaster said.

The patrol and local law enforcement agencies have been focusing on the state’s major cities since March. In Columbia alone, troopers and police made 295 cases — one-quarter of which were alcohol- or drug-related — during early morning checkpoints at key routes to and from the city, Lancaster said.

One of the ongoing trouble spots in the Midlands is the long stretches of I-26 through Orangeburg County, the colonel said.

Lancaster blames hilly terrain that lulls drivers with its wave-like motion that then slows reaction times.

“They just get kind of in a daze,” he said of motorists. “They’ve been there so long, just driving. The more tired you get, your depth perception is not as good.”

Lancaster recommends that drivers take more frequent breaks when fatigue sets in or change who’s behind the steering wheel.

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