Lexington County saw the biggest spike in traffic deaths in SC this year

Crosses mark where people die on Lexington roads

The Lexington County Coroner is painting memorials to those who die in traffic accidents
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The Lexington County Coroner is painting memorials to those who die in traffic accidents

Traffic deaths have risen by more in Lexington County in 2018 than anywhere else in South Carolina.

There have been 64 traffic-related deaths in the county so far this year, 17 more than total deaths at this time last year, according to the Lexington County coroner’s office.

The county’s chief deputy coroner, Candace Berry, said she’s noticed a surge in the number of deaths related to people “evading law enforcement.”

At least six people this year have died in collisions that resulted from police chases, Berry said. One incident killed three people.

“That may be one of the biggest differences,” she said. “We didn’t see that so much last year.”

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There were also two bicycle deaths and 10 pedestrian deaths, which is more than usual, according to Berry. In all of the pedestrian cases, people were walking in the roadway, and almost all of those killed did not have high-visibility clothing on.

Like highway patrol and other public safety agencies, Berry and the team at the coroner’s office have tried to parse information on the disproportionate number of traffic fatalities to try to find risk factors and trends.

For a while, Berry said, she thought she “might be onto something” because of a number of incidents on a two-lane dirt road in rural Lexington County. But that pattern faded over time, making it challenging to pinpoint a general cause of traffic deaths.

Trooper David Jones from S.C. Highway Patrol said half of the traffic deaths in the state have involved people drinking and driving and people not wearing seat belts. That is no different in Lexington County, he said.

Drivers often will say to troopers that a vehicle “was built to protect” them, canceling out the need for a seat belt. Or they will say that if they crash, they will only harm themselves, Jones said. But officials see a different result when they knock on the door of a victim’s loved ones to deliver the news.

“We see where a poor decision affected those many people,” he said.

Berry said she thinks about how every year, hundreds of people feel the ripple effects from traffic fatalities. There may be only a handful of deaths, as in other counties around South Carolina, but the devastation is “far-reaching.” In Lexington County, 64 deaths means whole communities impacted.

“If each one of them only knew 10 people — and we know they knew more than that — that’s hundreds of people who have been affected, and their lives have been changed,” she said.

The only counties that come close to the 36-percent increase in Lexington County are Spartanburg, which saw 65 traffic deaths — at least 15 more than at this point last year — and Orangeburg, which had 39 fatalities, compared to 25 in 2017. Greenville County had the most deaths in South Carolina so far this year, with 69 fatalities.

Jones said the Highway Patrol is vigilant to spot drivers without seat belts on, but officials need community members to watch out for risky behaviors, as well, especially during the holiday party season. In 2017, seven people in South Carolina died between Dec. 22 and 25.

“We don’t want to knock on anymore doors,” he said.

The S.C. Highway Patrol’s “Sober or Slammer!” end-of-year DUI enforcement campaign begins on Saturday, Dec. 14 and ends on Jan. 1.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.