Crime & Courts

2009 S.C.road deaths lowest in years

South Carolina is in line to have one of its lowest road death tolls in years.

As of midnight Wednesday, with one day to go in 2009, 879 people had died on state roads.

In all 2008, 921 died in traffic incidents.

Not since 1995 has South Carolina had fewer than 900 deaths on its roads.

State Department of Public Safety director Mark Keel said the slow economy might be responsible in part for the lowered death toll, because people may be driving less.

But he said there are other key factors for the decline:

- Seat belt use is up, at 81 percent - an all-time high - thanks to the state's four-year-old law requiring drivers to wear seat belts or face a $25 fine. Higher seat belt use translates into a reduction in deaths, Keel said. About 59 percent of all S.C. road fatalities in which drivers or passengers had access to seat belts involve a failure to use them.

- The state's 828 troopers are targeting impaired drivers and drivers without seat belts. In 2009, the patrol wrote thousands more tickets for seat belt and DUI violations than in 2008. Some 46 percent of all road deaths involve a driver impaired by drugs or alcohol.

- The creation of a special 31-trooper team that targets DUI drivers. Since July, that team has made 1,187 DUI cases through Dec. 23, Keel said. nA program in which the Highway Patrol works with some 200 local law enforcement agencies to focus on problem areas and arrest dangerous drivers works well.

"It's not just us; it's law enforcement in general," Keel said.

Just how well such partnerships between the highway patrol and local law agencies is working can be is seen in Lexington County, officers say.

In 2008, Lexington County had 60 traffic fatalities. As of this week, the fatalities had nosedived to 37, according to DPS statistics.

(In Richland County, road deaths stayed about the same - 42 in 2009, compared with 43 in 2008.)

Lexington's network is a kind of force multiplier, creating a pool of state and local law officers who staff checkpoints where large numbers of drivers are stopped, said Lexington County Sheriff's Lt. Jimmy Crawford said.

"If we ceased doing network checkpoints, I would be fearful of where our fatality rate would go," Crawford said.

Lexington checkpoints can involve 30-40 officers from the Highway Patrol, the Lexington County Sheriff's office and the county's 14 municipalities.

At the checkpoints, drivers who show signs of impairment are given field sobriety tests.

In 2009, Lexington County's checkpoints have resulted in the arrests of "easily more than 100" drivers, Crawford said.

Lexington officials also work with local police, including the city of Columbia, to warn local businesses that sell beer, wine or liquor they face legal consequences if they sell alcohol to impaired drivers.

Overall, targeting drunk drivers has helped result in an 11 percent decrease this year in fatalities associated with impaired drivers, Keel said.

Road fatalities might be even lower if South Carolina could change its beer-guzzling ways, he added - which can lead to dangerous driving and death.

"It's a culture that we live in and all love, but there's this independence about South Carolinians that leads many to think they can go out there and drink and drive and it's OK," Keel said.

Keel quoted statistics from the national Beer Institute, which say South Carolinians rank 13th nationwide in beer consumed per capita. South Carolinians drink an average of 35.9 gallons of beer each year.

"We're just the opposite of where we want to be," said Keel.

The patrol will keep on targeting dangerous drivers, Keel said.