YORK COUNTY, S.C. (Rock Hill Herald) - A week of deaths on local roads continues an unsettling trend and adds to the growing number of lives lost.
All those wrecks happened Sept. 1.
That many fatalities in that short a span isn’t common. Increasingly though, fatal wrecks in this area are.
AGAINST THE TREND
Through Labor Day, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety reported 638 road fatalities this year. That number is down 8%, or 55 deaths, from the same span in 2018. Statewide the death toll through Labor Day is the lowest in at least four years.
Locally, it’s a different story.
The 39 York County deaths through Labor Day are the exact same number as the 2018 and 2017 totals combined. The county has been near the top of state figures for fatalities since four motorists died in York County wrecks Jan. 1.
The 15 Lancaster County fatalities through Labor Day were the most in at least four years, and almost twice the eight recorded last year.
Only Chester County, in the tri-county area, has recorded fewer road deaths this year. There were seven through Labor Day, down from eight last year and 14 in 2017.
Public safety department figures include highway patrol investigations. Those incidents make up most, but not all, responses to fatal wrecks. Municipalities sometimes respond and investigate with their own police.
Rock Hill had eight fatal collisions within city limits last year, its highest number in at least six years. The total numbers of collisions with injuries and percentage of collisions with injuries, though, were both down from 2017.
Of the highway deaths this year, 35% in the tri-county area happened on state roads. Another 32% came on smaller, narrower secondary roads, and 20% on U.S. highways. Just 13% occurred on I-77.
WHY IS IT HAPPENING?
Part of the issue is, there are more and more drivers each year.
York and Lancaster counties combined for almost 67,000 more residents last year than in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The only three counties with more people than York through Labor Day this year — Horry, Charleston and Greenville — average 147,000 more residents.
“Operationally that seems logical, because you’ve got more human activity,” said David Hooper, director of the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study. “Where we see demand levels that are higher, we see a higher level of crashes as well.”
Yet population isn’t the only factor.
Richland, Spartanburg and Lexington counties also have more residents than York. Richland has about 13,000 more residents than York, Lancaster and Chester counties combined. Richland had about half the fatalities compared to the tri-county area, through Labor Day.
Hooper’s group models traffic, including wreck data. He looks at factors from driver age to speed to alcohol to road type, whether on an open stretch or at an intersection. Distracted driving, including cell phone use, and whether people wear seat belts, are factors.
“They tend to tell us part of the story,” Hooper said.
RFATS doles out federal money for the urbanized area — Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Indian Land, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie — it covers. The RFATS area actually ranks below state averages for fatalities. People tend to think of wrecks in busy places, Hooper said, but traffic experts expect the road departures that often lead to fatal wrecks in more rural areas.
“You don’t tend to see those types of crashes in more urbanized areas,” Hooper said.
Target Zero is the statewide road safety plan aimed at eliminating vehicle-related fatalities.
The multi-transportation agency Target Zero data shows almost 43% of fatal or severe injury wrecks involve vehicles leaving their travel lane or roadway, striking a fixed object or vehicle. That factor is more common than lack of seat belt use (41%), young or senior citizen drivers (36%), speeding (35%) or impaired driving (26%).
Distracted driving can be difficult to calculate, with anything from cell phone use to changing the radio station a possibility. Traffic experts agree it’s a factor. In Rock Hill, distraction or inattention was given as the primary factor in 19% of all collisions last year. Speeding, over-correcting and running off the road combined for about 2%.
Timing matters too.
Rock Hill found drivers are most likely to wreck on a Friday afternoon. They’re least likely on a Sunday.
Busy streets or major intersections have the most wrecks, typically cars rear-ending another vehicle. Yet more serious wrecks can happen there too.
Target Zero data shows high risk roadways factor into major wrecks 26% of the time.
WHAT’S BEING DONE?
RFATS and Pennies for Progress, the York County cent sales tax program for roads, have been modernizing roads for decades. Many of the major roads through Rock Hill, Fort Mill and other neighboring communities were built as farm-to-town roads back when land was open and mills employed many within the municipalities. Now many of those roads are thoroughfares.
Road widening and intersection improvements are common. New roads were built bypassing Fort Mill, connecting Tega Cay, and growing Lake Wylie. Pennies alone accounts for almost $840 million in project funding since 1997. It’s an ongoing task upgrading once rural roads to support much higher traffic volumes.
There’s a statewide push to improve rural roads too -- with an eye on safety.
In 2017 an increased gas tax in South Carolina prompted the South Carolina Department of Transportation to develop a 10-year road improvement plan. Safety was a top priority, with plans to replace more than 400 bridges and add safety features to 1,000 miles of rural roads.
The plan’s goal is to address the worst rural roads with 100 miles of safety improvements each year.
All but one of the York County projects on the 10-year plan involve bridges. The lone listed rural safety projects involves S.C. 5 from the Cherokee County line to Kinglet Drive.
All but six of the 27 Lancaster County projects are bridges. The others are rural safety improvements on S.C. 9, 903, 97 and U.S. 521.
In Chester County, six of 13 projects involve rural safety improvements. The other seven are bridges. Start dates haven’t been determined for work on S.C. 72, 97, 215 and U.S. 21.
The SCDOT online project map shows additional safety improvements.
One is an almost 12-mile stretch of Saluda Road from Chester into York County. Lancaster County has U.S. 521 on the list from south of Shiloh Unity Road to north of Waxhaw Highway, and Pageland Highway from Potter Road past the Chesterfield County line. Those improvements could include rumble strips or guard rails, shoulder extension or signalization.
Hooper said among road planners there’s often tension between engineering roads to help prevent fatalities, and focusing on drivers. A little more pavement on the shoulder may help someone from over-correcting. It won’t help if a driver is drunk.
“You can’t engineer out driver behavior,” Hooper said.
WHAT CAN DRIVERS DO?
The answer to what factors into road fatalities, is yes. It’s speeding. It’s driving without fastening your seat belt. It can be a long, two-lane winding rural road carrying more traffic than it was designed for.
“You can see this where there are curves in the roadway,” Hooper said, of leaving the travel lane. “Light as well as surface conditions influence it. Is it day or is it night? Alcohol, sadly, plays a role.”
His suggestions for drivers aren’t new. They’re obvious, and there’s a reason.
“Some of the most obvious things to do are some of the things that work best,” Hooper said.
Paying attention to what other drivers are doing is big. So are seat belts. Heeding speed limit signs also helps.
“Speeding doesn’t save us nearly as much time as some think,” Hooper said.
Putting down the cell phone would make a big difference, he said. Whether speeding or texting, drivers look to save five minutes here or there, but in doing so, Hooper said they increase their risk.
If people thought about it that way he wonders if they might drive differently.
“Try to make sure you focus on driving itself,” he said.