MY BROTHER, according to family lore, limped home one day with bloodied face and arms and legs and sobbed that he was riding his bicycle when the road “jumped up and hit me.”
That image of vicious potholes lying in wait to attack unsuspecting travelers popped into mind the other night when a friend said the Legislature has to act quickly to raise the gas tax because of “the horrendous condition of our roads and the hourly threat of fatalities there on every hour that passes.”
Clearly, our roads are in desperate need of repair. We need to repair them because the potholes that land us in body shops and the congestion that drives down our gas mileage are costing us an extra $1.1 billion a year to operate our cars. We need to repair them because the cost of repairing them goes up every day. We need to repair them because the bumpy rides and traffic jams discourage businesses from expanding or relocating to our state.
And it’s crazy to use sales and income tax revenue to repair them instead of gas-tax revenue, which allows us to share the cost with the out-of-state drivers who contribute so much to the deterioration and congestion.
But we need to be honest about what problems those roads are causing and what problems they are not causing, so we can focus on all of the solutions — and not just the ones that involve asphalt.
Just as the pothole my brother crashed his bicycle into did not actually jump up and hit him, the potholes that pock our disintegrating roads are not jumping up and killing people.
South Carolina has had some of nation’s deadliest highways for a lot longer than our roads have been in such awful condition. The problem that’s killing people isn’t our roads; it’s our drivers and our highway-safety laws and our law enforcement.
The state Transportation Department says that with more money, it could install safety features to help keep vehicles on the road: wider, paved shoulders, new and better guard rails and rumble strips, to alert drivers they’re at the road’s edge, new designs that give drivers who run off the road time to get back on the highway. And I’m sure those improvements — which would receive only a small portion of the additional $1 billion a year the agency says we need to spend on roads — would prevent a few fatalities and more non-fatal collisions.
But letter writer Richard Zimmer summed up the situation pretty well recently when he dismantled the absurd argument that driving on S.C. highways was more dangerous than serving in a war zone: “While I agree that our roads could be made safer and potholes filled more quickly, most of those 975 deaths could have been prevented simply by drivers buckling up, motorcyclists wearing helmets, not speeding, not driving drunk, not texting or talking on the phone or indulging in other distractions, and obeying other traffic laws. Then striking a tree on the side of the road would not be an issue.”
That sounds harsh, but as long as we ignore what’s causing most highway deaths, we won’t fix the actual problem, which is careless drivers, who are encouraged by insufficient highway-safety laws that are insufficiently enforced.
Do narrow shoulders make it more likely that drivers will run off the road? Of course they do; but driving drunk makes that happen even with wide shoulders. Can nausea-inducing curves increase the chance of a crash? Yep; but even a modestly curvy road will result in a crash when the driver ignores the warning sign and doesn’t slow down. Will hitting a pothole make you careen into oncoming traffic? Maybe, but people who aren’t paying enough attention to see the pothole are just as likely to swerve into oncoming traffic without that sudden jar.
So while we invest in improving our highways — for all those reasons that are really important but don’t have anything to do with saving lives — we also need to improve our highway-safety laws, which won’t cost a penny.
We need to make it illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent. (Our law claims to do this, but it’s so full of loopholes that many police use the old law that requires a higher standard of proof.)
We need to require ignition-interlock devices on the vehicles of all DUI offenders and require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets and require children to ride in booster seats through age 7. We need to set 16 as the minimum age for a learner’s permit, restrict the number of passengers teen drivers can haul around in their vehicles and prohibit cell phone use by teen drivers.
We need to make it easier to enforce the ban on texting while driving and allow police to use cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners.
Along with those better laws, we need more police to enforce them — which will cost money but will actually save lives. And those changes will lead, over time, to better drivers — who will be more likely to survive their drives regardless of the condition of our roads.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.