Politics & Government

SC ranks sixth deadliest state for pedestrians. How some hope to change that

In the month of March alone, six people in the Midlands died while biking or walking along South Carolina roadways. Half of the victims were children.

Those statistics are not unusual. A February report by the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association ranked South Carolina as the sixth deadliest state for pedestrians, raising questions about what the state could be doing to improve safety for pedestrians on its roads.

Now, a group of Lexington County runners have banded together to push legislation to provide safer and efficient accommodations for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

“We have a right to run or walk in our communities. We have a right to want to be healthy. And all we are asking for is safe places to run,” said Travis Price, who started F3 fitness groups in Lexington. “We have members who have elected not to run on the streets anymore, because they don’t feel safe or their spouses don’t feel it’s safe.”

Price said he’ll never forget the day in June 2017 he was asked to identify for law enforcement the body of his friend and running mate, John Flanagan.

Flanagan, 38, was running on Sunset Boulevard with members of the running group just before 6 a.m. when he was hit and killed by a car at North Lake Drive. He was about four miles into his run and was crossing at a crosswalk to get to a sidewalk so he could run toward traffic as opposed to away from it.

“John was one of our more safe runners,” Price said. “He always had a headlamp and reflective gear, as he (did) that day.

“It makes us feel like if steps aren’t taken, then it’s just a matter of time before someone else is killed.”

Groups push ‘complete streets’ bill

Some lawmakers are pushing a bill that would require the S.C. Department of Transportation to develop a policy to provide safe and efficient accommodations for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. But it has stalled over funding concerns and DOT opposition.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-Charleston, directs the DOT to create a “complete streets” policy to protect and meet the mobility needs of all road users, not just drivers, when they build and retrofit state-owned roads.

“Ultimately, as a General Assembly, we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact (that) either we let more people continue to die — not do anything about these roads — or we act,” Pendarvis told The State. “We are behind. There are more and more lives being lost. We have to do something.

he bill has the backing of Charleston-area transit advocates as well as the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, Coastal Conservation League, AARP, Able South Carolina, American Heart Association and Columbia Development Corp., among others.

Between 2009 and 2019, drivers struck and killed 1,449 pedestrians and bicyclists on S.C. roads. In 2019 alone, preliminary data for the first four months of the year show 65 pedestrians and bicyclists died in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Highway Patrol.

Pedestrians across the state were killed by vehicles at an annual rate of 2.37 fatalities per 100,000 people over the last decade. That compares to a national average of 1.5 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people. That’s more than 13 people per day, or one person every hour and 46 minutes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“That’s 40 more people that die every year as pedestrians than just the national average,” Palmetto Cycling Executive Director Amy Johnson Ely said.

Deaths on the rise

In South Carolina and across the country, the number of pedestrian crashes has increased over the last 10 years, with 2016 and 2017 rating as the most deadly years for people killed by drivers while walking since 1990.

From 2009 to 2017, drivers killed or injured more than 13,700 pedestrians or bicyclists in the state, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the Palmetto Cycling Coalition and S.C. Livable Communities Alliance. The overwhelming majority (86%) of the crashes occurred on state roadways.

Minorities comprised a disproportionate share of crash victims, according to the 2018 report. African Americans make up 27% of South Carolina’s population but represented 44% of pedestrian and bicyclist killed and injured in crashes in the state over that period.

Richland County was home to the second highest share of pedestrian crashes in the state, trailing only Charleston County.

“The bottom line is people are being killed and injured because of the zip code that they live in, and because they cannot afford a car,” said Tiffany James, president of National Action Network of Columbia. “We are not asking for a beautification project from the state. We are asking for a basic, minimum standard accommodation to save lives, despite where people live.”

DOT: Not a new idea

SCDOT officials say they’ve been limited by funding, but plan to use new road money generated by a gas tax increase for rural road safety improvements projects in areas with the highest fatality and serious injury rates in the state.

The transportation agency plans to spend about $50 million a year in gas tax revenues to add four-foot paved shoulders and rumble strips and clear trees along rural roads, which account for about 30% of all serious and fatal crashes in the state.

“While it’s not a sidewalk, hopefully, it will improve safety for all users,” said Rob Perry, director of traffic engineering for the SCDOT.

State transportation officials, too, argue they’re making a conscious effort to include sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes during project development.

Leland Colvin, deputy secretary of engineering for the SCDOT, in a hearing before lawmakers earlier this year pointed to projects in Greenville, Fountain Inn, Florence, Lexington and Myrtle Beach with sidewalk cafes, bike lanes, crosswalks and crossing islands.

Starting last year, the DOT set aside $5 million a year out of a pool of $42 million in federal highway safety funds for improving roads for pedestrians and cyclists. It has another $11.5 million a year that cities and counties can request to help pay for pedestrian safety upgrades on local roads.

The transportation agency passed a resolution in 2003 favoring complete streets, but Pendarvis and supporters argue it was never put into practice or clearly articulated in department policy.

‘False promises’

SCDOT estimates the “complete streets” legislation would cost the department about $40 million a year. That estimate is based on installing four-foot bike lanes and five-foot sidewalks as part of the $138 million the DOT allocates each year for road reconstruction and new construction projects.

However, the bill does not mandate that the SCDOT spend even a penny. Rather, it requires the DOT to consider pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly options, in partnership with local governments, when designing a project, which may or may not be used.

DOT officials and some Republican lawmakers worry money meant to fix the state’s roads and bridges, and raised through recent increases to the state’s gas tax, would be diverted for the pedestrian improvements.

“I’m not going to vote for anything that tells people what they want to hear, and then us not have the money for it,” said state Rep. Chris Wooten, R-Lexington. “I would love to sit down and devise a complete plan. ... However, let’s make sure (the money is) there before we start throwing out promises. No more false promises.”

Wooten, a runner for more than 30 years, said he’s had “close calls” with motorists. But the key to cutting down on accidents is to crack down on drunk and distracted driving, he said.

Pendarvis, though, said he sees an appetite in the House to pass a “complete streets” policy in 2020, and is hopeful issues with the legislation can be worked out with the DOT this summer.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.