Pedestrians in metropolitan Columbia are being hit or killed at a startling rate this year, a terrible fact that has contorted the life of Steven Ferguson.
Nine pedestrians died on public streets in Richland and Lexington counties in the first three months of 2011. In contrast, 14 were killed in the two-county area in all of last year. This year’s total is even more frightening because it amounts to more than a third of the 25 pedestrians run over and killed statewide since Jan. 1, according to data from public-safety officials.
The counties’ coroners are alarmed. And police and other safety advocates worry the trend will grow worse as the sluggish economy and rising gasoline prices force more people to walk and inadequate transit systems fail to take riders where they need to go.
Further, the rising tide of injured pedestrians comes as the number of pedestrian-related accidents dropped for the third year last year and as South Carolina and the nation reached new lows in deaths among motorists.
Ferguson, a 30-year-old dancer and musician, is one of the lucky ones — he’s alive. But the Charlotte native and USC graduate who is well-known in Columbia’s dance scene is looking at a fierce future. A car struck him March 21 on Assembly Street as he was unloading books from the trunk of his parked car to renew them at the county library.
“I heard a big noise. I turned around,” Ferguson said last week from his hospital bed. “I saw headlights and car parts.” A 2001 Chevy sedan had sideswiped a parked car then rear-ended the one parked immediately behind Ferguson’s.
“I felt like that car jumped at me,” he said. The athletic dancer’s powerful legs were crushed.
“I just remember that my legs got pinned, both of my feet were turned sideways and my hands were on the hood,” he said, choking back tears.
Ferguson has had four surgeries and faces many more. Metal bolts protrude from legs that once propelled his leaps across stages and anchored his easy lifts of dance partners.
When he learned that the driver lost control of her car because she bent over to pick up a container of spilled tea, tears streamed down Ferguson’s face.
But his outlook remains upbeat.
“They’re telling me that their first objective is for me to be able to walk again,” he said of his doctors at Palmetto Health Richland. “I have hopes that I’ll still do everything that I want to do in my life.”
Demographics of danger
The eruption of pedestrian fatalities is unequaled in the memories of local coroners, who call the rate alarming.
Interviews with the coroners and police show that pedestrians who have been killed this year span the social spectrum. They range from a young woman with a long police record who foolishly ran between the tires of a moving tractor-trailer rig, to the beloved wife of an orthopedist struck as she left church services.
Momentary mistakes also took the lives of an 87-year-old man who retrieved aluminum cans along West Columbia roadsides, a woman who crossed Columbia’s Duke Avenue to get her neighbor’s newspaper and a National Guardsman about to be redeployed to Iraq who had a midnight collision on I-77 and got out to warn other motorists.
Drugs or alcohol led to the deaths of some pedestrians. A man on Garners Ferry Road had a blood-alcohol level almost four times the legal definition of impairment, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said. A Colorado man who was in Irmo for his sister’s funeral had alcohol, cocaine and marijuana in his system when he collapsed from a sidewalk onto a roadway, police said.
“These are classic do-not-do situations,” Watts said of the bulk of the fatalities. Pedestrians often were dressed in dark colors at night or crossed roads illegally.
In the nine fatalities, one driver has been found at fault — charged with driving under the influence in the town of Lexington.
The medical bills for treating injured South Carolina pedestrians reached $65.6 million at the state’s major hospitals from 2007 to 2009, according to hospital records supplied to the state. That’s an average of $15,803 per pedestrian.
Danger by the numbers
The State newspaper’s analysis of three years of collision data (2008-2010) from Richland and Lexington counties provided by the state Highway Safety office found:
• 428 collisions injured or killed 456 pedestrians
• 25 pedestrians died in those collisions (15 in Richland; 10 in Lexington)
• 58 percent of the time, pedestrians contributed to the collisions
• The most dangerous time was 6 p.m. through 9 p.m., when there were 115 collisions
• The next most dangerous time was 3 p.m. through 6 p.m., when there were 76 collisions
• The safest time was 3 a.m. through 6 a.m., when there were 17 collisions
• 36 collisions occurred along the most dangerous stretch of road, Columbia’s Two Notch Road.
The data reflect only collisions on public property.
Four S.C. counties have more than one pedestrian killed this year, according to the Highway Safety office, an arm of the state Department of Public Safety. They are Greenville, Horry, York and Berkeley, each with two.
Richland leads the state with five fatalities; Lexington has four.
Columbia police records show that pedestrian fatalities within the city limits have skyrocketed so far this year, to four. By comparison, two people died within the past three years.
In all of Richland County, including the capital city, 10 pedestrians were killed last year. Already in 2011, the number is half that total.
The danger is similar in Lexington County. Four pedestrians died in 2010, the same as in the past three months. “I would say it’s alarming by this time of the year,” said Coroner Harry Harman, who has been coroner 34 years.
Statewide, the pace of pedestrian fatalities has highway-safety officials concerned, too. If it does not slow, the tally for 2011 would reach 100, reversing two years of improvement.
Further, pedestrian deaths have jumped from 10 percent of all traffic fatalities — a rate that has held steady for three years — to 15 percent of the 165 deaths through the end of March.
Meanwhile, the number of pedestrian collisions had steadily dropped statewide from 2008 through last year. There were 941 in 2008 and 830 in 2010, records show.
Attacking the problem
Newly appointed Columbia police Chief Randy Scott said he turned more of his department’s focus onto pedestrian safety Feb. 20.
That was the Sunday morning that USC freshman James “Mac” Dunbar Jr. was hit and knocked into a weeks-long coma by an accused drunken driver on Assembly Street at the southern edge of campus. He continues to fight for his life at the same hospital where Ferguson is recuperating. Before that day was done, Claudia Walker McCain, wife of an orthopedist, would be struck and killed on Lady Street as she left church. Both were jaywalking, police said.
Those cases ratcheted up pedestrian-safety programs on campus as well as in the city.
Scott, USC transportation director Derrick Huggins and campus police chief Chris Wuchenich established a working group to address safety issues. Another meeting is planned soon to include the city’s mayor, USC’s president and state transportation officials.
Campus safety officials and city workers soon will erect no-parking signs and will ticket students who park on private property along the 300 block of Assembly, where Dunbar was struck near the Swearingen Center, and on adjacent Catawba Street near the railroad tracks. No-parking zones and new lighted pedestrian crosswalks already are in place around the Sol Blatt physical education center at Wheat and Sumter streets and along Barnwell Street in front of Capstone dormitory. The idea is to pressure students to use parking lots and garages rather than park illegally and jaywalk.
In the city, police have been targeting traffic enforcement along Gervais Street, especially in the Vista, as well as in neighborhoods, police spokesman Brick Lewis said.
Much of the problem is people being in a hurry and not paying attention — both pedestrians and motorists.
“You have gone from a society that never had mobile phones to a world where, yes, you see many people walking around distracted,” said Sgt. Derek Miller, head of the Columbia Police Department’s traffic unit. “The last thing on your mind is that car that’s coming down the street at you.”
The same applies to distracted motorists, he said, stressing defensive driving. “It falls back onto taking personal responsibility.”
Last week, Columbia enacted a ban on texting while driving that officials hope will go a long way toward keeping walkers safe. Fines could reach as much as $237.
Statewide, even as the number of highway troopers has been reduced by budget cuts, the Highway Patrol launched its own pedestrian-safety effort in January.
Troopers who see pedestrians in dangerous situations, such as walking with traffic to their backs, stop and explain the law or proper safety procedures.
So far, troopers have talked to 440 people statewide, said Col. Kenny Lancaster, head of the patrol. “We’ve never tracked pedestrian contacts until we started this,” he said.
Mark Keel, director of the Public Safety Department, which oversees the patrol, said some people have been arrested. “We’re not out to harass people,” Keel said. “This is all about saving lives. If someone’s falling down drunk and we take them to jail, we’ve saved their life.”
On Friday, the patrol learned it has received state authorization to purchase thousands of reflective slap bands for pedestrians to wrap around a wrist or ankle. Shiny objects give motorists more time to react, Keel said.
Amid the challenges of his recovery, Ferguson finds solace in personal ways. He’s comforted by the aid from passersby when he was struck that Monday evening.
“Black people, white people, old people, young people were trying to help me. This homeless guy gave me a bottle of water and let me drink from it,” Ferguson said, tears welling. “There are so many good people in the world and I thank the Lord for it. I was so grateful.”