South Carolina’s roads were twice as deadly for drivers in 2015 than the rest of the country, preliminary data shows.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report on July 1 that showed traffic deaths in 2015 were up 7.7 percent nationwide. But in South Carolina, there were 154 more fatal crashes in 2015 than in 2014, totaling 977, an increase of 16 percent.
Officials attributed the disparity to a combination of cheap gas, rural roads, more registered vehicles in the Palmetto State and an increase in distracted drivers. Those factors, coupled with slightly fewer highway troopers, have made the state’s roads more dangerous.
“Twenty-fifteen was a very tough year for us with traffic fatalities,” said Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith during a House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee meeting on Wednesday.
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Smith said troopers also had to be pulled from the road to assist in several events, including multiple rallies at the State House in the weeks leading up to the removal of the Confederate battle flag; the aftermath of the killing of nine at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church; the funeral of fallen Sen. Clementa Pinckney at the State House; and October’s historic floods.
That meant troopers were less visible on the road, which acts as a deterrent to speeding and distracted drivers.
“There are a lot of facets that have an effect on traffic fatalities,” DPS Lt. Kelley Hughes said. “What we have control of is education and enforcement.”
That education entails the agency’s most recent campaign involving emojis, digital icons most often used in text and instant messages, and presentations before the community concerning the dangers of distracted driving.
Enforcement means more troopers on the road. In 2015, full-time trooper numbers dipped to 760. A new class starting Friday will bring the Highway Patrol’s strength to 841 once they graduate, Smith said.
Ideal numbers would place manpower around 950 to 1,000. That way, troopers don’t have to wait until a problem arises on the road to address it.
“We want to do more,” said Hughes while stressing, however, that more troopers isn’t a cure-all.
Columbia’s motorists also fail at driving safe, according to the Allstate America’s Best Drivers Report, released Wednesday. The average driver in the Capital City is involved in a crash every seven years. Out of 200 cities, Columbia ranked 169th in the report.
Top five reasons of why people die in South Carolina’s roads involve going too fast for conditions; not wearing seat belts; drunk drivers, failing to yield to oncoming vehicles; and pedestrians who walk or lay down on the road, said Sgt. Bob Beres of the S.C. Highway Patrol.
“Those are all avoidable,” Beres said. “Everyone has a stake in this and can help us by making the right choices.”
Though compliance with the South Carolina seat belt law is at an all-time high, Beres said he still pulls over drivers who are not wearing one. He warned that in his 23 years of patrol, he’s never unbuckled a dead person.
South Carolina’s roads also don’t help. The majority of the state’s fatal crashes, 728, were categorized as “rural deaths” by DPS. That’s where roads are less likely to be lighted or have shoulders, said Tiffany Wright, AAA spokeswoman.
“Correctable mistakes aren’t as correctable,” said Wright of rural roads. “A tiny mistake can end up being a huge mistake or even a fatal one.”
But overall, the increase in fatal crashes has a direct correlation with gas prices, she said. It’s why she stressed the need for drivers to be more responsible when behind the wheel; using their seatbelts, driving sober and putting an end to distracted driving.
“We know it’s becoming an epidemic,” Wright said of distracted driving. “We’re seeing so many rear-end collisions. We like to say, ‘get in the car, disconnect.’”
DPS struggles with turnover
South Carolina Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith said Wednesday the agency is doing better at recruiting and retaining its officers.
DPS’ turnover rate is down to 12 percent from 14 in previous years, Smith said. And nine months after troopers got a pay hike, only 60 had left the agency, which is 20 fewer than the prior nine months, he said.
“That tells me that pay is very critical,” Smith said.
Before troopers got raises, the No. 1 reason they cited for leaving was pay. In September, starting salaries for troopers went up to $37,069 from $31,154. Experienced troopers received raises as well.
Law enforcement agencies nationwide struggle with similar pay issues, but South Carolina’s buyouts during the recession didn’t help the agency.
Before the state was forced to slash its budget, there were 943 troopers in 2008. Those numbers dropped to 853 in 2009 and continued to decline in 2012 to 758, when the state’s retirement system was restructured.
troopers on the road in 2008, before recession-driven cuts
troopers on the road in 2015, down from 779 in 2014
950 to 1,000
the department’s ideal trooper numbers
DEADLY SC ROADS
increase in fatalities nationwide from 2014 to 2015
increase in SC fatalities from 2014 to 2015
SC HIGHWAY DEATHS
977 in 2015
823 in 2014