WHAT’S THE most important thing South Carolina could do to reduce the number of people who die on our roads?
A. Raise the gas tax to pay for road and bridge repair and expansion.
B. Cut other government spending to pay for road and bridge repair and expansion.
C. Remove the parts of the latest Transportation Commission “reform” law that let legislators secretly veto the governor’s appointments and bar her from removing her commissioners.
D. Require motorcyclists to wear helmets.
E. Close the loopholes in our DUI law and increase penalties for drunken driving.
F. Enforce our highway safety laws more aggressively.
G. Do a better job of teaching people to drive safely.
If you listen to business leaders, politicians and a lot of ordinary drivers, you’ll be convinced that the answer is either “A” or “B.” And there’s no question that our roads are deteriorating frightfully, and we do need to invest more in paving our potholes and bolstering our bridges and expanding our capacity.
But while better roads might lower our blood pressure and make economic recruitment easier — and maybe save us money on auto repairs — it’s not clear how much of a difference they would make in reducing auto fatalities. The best way to cut highway deaths in South Carolina is probably “E” or “F,” although I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be be “G,” since in most areas of life, you get better results by convincing people not to do things they shouldn’t do than by punishing the ones you’re able to catch when they do those things.
(Option “D” — treating people on motorcycles the same way we treat people in cars and trucks — would make a huge difference if a larger portion of our drivers drove motorcycles; mercifully, they do not. And I threw in option “C” not because that by itself would ever fix our fatalities problem but because it’s simply not responsible even to mention spending more on road repairs without talking about the continuing need to let the governor control the Transportation Department.)
I was reminded of the relative roles of road conditions and driver conditions after reviewing the latest annual report on the interstate highway system from the national lobbying organization TRIP, which trumpets the news that South Carolina has one of the highest interstate death rates in the nation. Although the report is all about spending more money on interstates, its numbers actually suggest that our problem has a lot less to do with road capacity than with driver capacity.
The report, based on 2014 figures, showed that our interstate death rate is 50 percent higher than the rest of the nation: 0.82 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled here vs. 0.54 deaths nationally.
If the problem were the roads, and not other factors such as the drivers or even enforcement, you’d expect our road conditions to also be somewhere around 50 percent worse than the national average. But as difficult as this is to believe if you spend most of your time on S.C. highways, our interstates are actually in better shape than the national average: 83 percent of our interstate pavement is in good condition, compared to 78 percent nationally, and 13 percent of our interstate bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, compared to 21 percent nationally. In urban areas, 39 percent of our interstates are congested, compared to 43 percent nationally.
The report also shows that the non-interstates are far more deadly in South Carolina than in the nation as a whole, with 1.98 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled vs. 1.26 nationally. Since the goal of the report is to spur interstate spending, it didn’t compare the conditions of non-interstate highways. But since the difference between S.C. and national numbers is nearly identical on and off the interstates, it makes some sense to assume that the cause might be the same on and off of the interstates.
When TRIP looked at the difference between death rates on South Carolina’s interstates and other highways, it concluded that the interstates saved 165 lives in 2014. And that’s probably accurate; no one could possibly argue with the idea that it’s safer to drive on a limited-access, no-intersection, one-way highway with multiple lanes than to drive on a dark, narrow, curvy back road with poorly marked intersections.
But when I look at the numbers, what stands out to me is the difference between the death rates on South Carolina roads — interstate or non-interstate — and the roads in the rest of the country. What jumps out at me is not how many lives were saved on South Carolina’s interstates, but how many lives were lost on all of our roads. The numbers in the report suggest that about 300 more people would be alive today if we had driven more like people in the rest of the nation last year, when our highway death rate topped 975.
Improve our roads? Certainly. But let’s not lose sight of the most important thing we can do to save lives on them: Improve the way we drive, through tougher laws or tougher enforcement or better education. Better still, why not all three?
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.