HIGHWAYS OR DIE-WAYS?

EditorJanuary 15, 2014 

The scene of a fatal accident in Socastee. Photo by Matt Silfer for Weekly Surge.

MATT SILFER FOR THE SUN NEWS. Buy Photo

You’re driving southbound on U.S. 17 Bypass in Myrtle Beach and just over the hump after crossing U.S. 501 a mini-van with Ohio plates cuts left across three lanes in front of you trying desperately to get to Coastal Grand Mall, nearly causing a multiple car pile-up in rush hour traffic. This despite a small standard-green road-side sign that reads, “Mall traffic use right lane.”

“Goddamn tourist!,” you yell, laying on the horn, road rage consuming your every fiber.

It’s a catch 22, for sure - we rely on tourists as the backbone of our fragile economy - but many locals are in the habit of blaming these visitors for all that ills the Grand Strand, especially those vacationers that seem to be vehicular-challenged.

But here’s the rub: Tourists may be pissing us off when we’re behind the wheel as we curse them for zig-zagging about and clogging our roadways - yet it’s largely locals who are dying on the pavement.

“The majority of fatal accidents involve locals,” confirmed Corp. Sonny Collins, of the South Carolina Highway Patrol’s Troop 5, which covers Horry County.

And Horry County’s labyrinth of highways, byways, bypasses and rural routes are particularly - and consistently - deadly.

Hey, at least we’re consistent...

The good news: In 2013, Horry County didn’t have the second-most deadly roads in The Palmetto State.

The bad news: 51 - and possibly more - people died on Horry County roads in 2013, making us third in traffic fatalities only behind the much more urbanized and more populous Greenville and Richland counties, according to preliminary figures compiled by the S.C. Department of Public Safety. It is the same total as in 2012 when Horry County tied Richland County for second-most traffic fatalities in the state.

Why do we say “and possibly more” traffic fatalities?

“There won’t be a final figure for 2013 data until we stop taking crash reports, which will most likely not happen until the end of 2015, based on the trends from past years. 2012 data are still preliminary as well, and will not be finalized until the end of this year,” explained Jordan Hix, Public Affairs Manager for the Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs with the South Carolina Department of Public Safety (wow, try printing that job title on a business card).

An analysis of this incomplete data made available online to the media did back up Corp. Collins’ statement that in 2013, locals were the most common victims in Horry County fatal traffic accidents. Of the 32 Horry County fatal accidents compiled in the SCDPS database that include detailed information about each wreck, most involved Myrtle Beach-area residents, while a few involved residents from nearby areas in North Carolina, other locales in South Carolina, and one from Texas and one from Virginia, respectively.

So, the data cited in this article may not be definitive, but it’s good enough to identify trends - and to underscore the fact that Horry County is one of the most dangerous places to get behind the wheel in South Carolina and AAA Carolinas has also determined that Horry County is “the most dangerous county for motorcycle collisions and injurious motorcycle crashes.”

Add to that a recent survey that found The Palmetto State has the second worst drivers in the nation, according to carinsurancecomparison.com, and we’ve got a veritable smash ‘em up derby, where it seems like you take your life in your hands each time you strap in and commute from Cherry Grove to Carolina Forest, or head from Burgess to the Little River waterfront, or take that two-wheeler for a spin down S.C. 90 from Longs to Wampee.

Are we paying the human price for explosive, rapid growth and planning that can’t keep up? For an anti-tax sentiment that’s loathe to approve of spending public dollars for public works? For being a popular vacation destination that overwhelms infrastructure and public safety, and/or for fostering a party atmosphere where speeding, reckless driving and driving under the influence is rampant? And how do three major annual motorcycle rallies along the Grand Strand fit into the equation?

The numbers don’t lie - or do they?

According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, Horry County is the fifth most-populous county in the state and Greenville County is No. 1.

Horry County has an estimated population of 282,285 while Greenville County has an estimate of 467,605 residents, 185,320 more than our seaside republic. Yet, in the last few years, Horry has nearly kept pace with the number of traffic fatalities as the upstate municipality - while the gap closed a bit more recently with a disparity of 16 road deaths in 2013, and a difference of 17 in 2012. But in 2011 and 2010, Horry was only two traffic fatalities behind Greenville - 52 to 54 respectively and 48 to 50.

Why are people dying on our roads at a clip that comes close to matching a much more populous county with three heavily-traveled Interstates running through it?

“The best way to compare them is by vehicle miles traveled rather than by total fatalities,” said Angela Vogel Daley, Director of Communications for AAA Carolinas.

OK, vehicle miles travelled, what the hell does that mean?

“It’s the total number of miles driven in that county, which allows you to compare the number of accidents/fatalities relative to the amount of traffic. Typically the highest population counties have the highest number of fatalities, but they also have the highest amount of traffic, so it’s more accurate to compare the number of fatalities per vehicle miles traveled,” said Daley.

Then how does Horry County stack up to Greenville County using that measure?

“My figures show 68 fatalities for Greenville County for 2012 and 51 for Horry,” said Daley. “Greenville had 3,863,015,880 vehicle miles traveled that year and Horry had 2,828,058,935. For Greenville, that’s 1.76 fatalities per 100 million VMT and 1.80 for Horry. Not a significant difference but Horry is slightly more dangerous when you factor in the amount of traffic.”

Ah, here’s the part where the pesky tourists come into play.

The law of averages and logic dictates that things get inherently complicated when a county’s population of a little more than a quarter million swells to roughly a million at the height of tourist season. More cars, more traffic, more accidents.

The S.C. Department of Public Safety issues periodic updates on traffic fatalities in the state, and a few months ago, Surge began posting the alarming results from Horry County on our Facebook page. On Nov. 4 we posted the latest stats and posed the question: what makes Horry County’s roads so deadly? The majority of respondents placed the blame on tourists.

“The influx of tourists is certainly one of the factors — congested roads with people who are unfamiliar with the traffic patterns typically results in more accidents. Even if it is mostly locals dying, it still likely means a higher proportion of visitors than in other non-touristy areas of the state. A similar metro area in North Carolina could be Wilmington, which is about the same size as Myrtle Beach. We see New Hanover County repeatedly appear on our Dangerous Counties list, due to it being a tourist destination, a college town and an urban area with plenty of commuters,” said Daley.

S.C. Highway Patrol’s Collins says the three main contributing factors in fatal crashes are speeding, seatbelts, or lack thereof, and impaired driving (i.e. drunk or under the influence of other substances).

“Tourist areas are also prime for drunk driving, with people celebrating, and often younger drivers, who are the least likely to buckle up and most likely to speed or drive recklessly,” said Daley.

Sgt. Jeff Benton, Public Information Officer/Community Outreach with the Horry County Sherriff’s office, said via e-mail that in 2013, “According to our jail records, we had 1,663 individuals come to our facility for DUI-related charges. I don’t have the past year’s numbers.”

How many DUI-related crashes were there in Horry County in 2013?

“We do not have preliminary impaired driving data that we can release for 2013,” said the Department of Public Safety’s Hix.

Another contributing factor, said Collins, is that the Myrtle Beach area has become more of a year-round tourist destination. Gone are the days when tumbleweeds blow down U.S. 17 during December, January and February. “There isn’t that off-season anymore,” said Collins.

But again, despite more year-round visitors, by and large, it’s not tourists losing their lives in the wreckage of twisted metal and shards of glass.

The most common traffic fatality in Horry County is the single car crash, often late at night/early in the morning when the driver loses control and runs off the road, Collins said.

Highway to Hell?

In a press release, David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas, laid down the gauntlet: “Consistently high rankings for being one of the most dangerous counties in the state should be a wake-up call for better traffic enforcement or road design.”

Is he talkin’ bout ‘Oh-ree County like that?

“The enforcement is there,” countered Collins of the S.C. Highway Patrol.

You can’t really argue with that - State Troopers have a heavy presence in Horry County, looking out for and nabbing speeders along main arteries such as U.S. 501, U.S. 17 Bypass and S.C. 31, and secondary, but well-traveled routes such as Holmestown Road, Glenn’s Bay Road and Garden City Connector. And you’ve also got the Horry County Police, Myrtle Beach Police, North Myrtle Beach Public Safety, Conway Police, and Surfside Beach Police canvassing their respective portions of the pie.

And DUI enforcement has been stepped up in recent times, with checkpoints/roadblocks being the norm on many weekends.

As if on cue, Horry CAST, which stands for Community Action for a Safer Tomorrow, released this statement while we were preparing this article: “Law enforcement officials and the Horry County CAST coalition have come together to address the high rate of DUI crashes in Horry County. They are hoping to reduce the high rate of DUI crashes by conducting additional public safety checkpoints and saturation patrols throughout the county.”

So what about the better “road design” part of Parsons’ jab?

We conducted an informal Facebook poll asking whether Horry County’s road designs are any worse than other places, and local motorists had plenty to say. Among the chief complaints were lack of roadside lighting, poorly-designed intersections, sidewalks that stop and start seemingly at random, and the lack of shoulders on the roads and highways.

“I’ve never been anywhere in the U.S. with worse roads than Myrtle Beach,” said former Horry County resident Vanessa Morsse. “Including where I currently live in Los Angeles. Even though there is a lot of congestion here, there is no confusion, and there are actual construction projects to fix broken roads.”

Will in-progress major road construction projects such as creating a $121.7 million Backgate overpass and the widening of S.C. 707 from Enterprise Road to the county line help matters and ease congestion as hoped?

Despite the peanut gallery criticisms, Horry County is spending butt loads of cash on improvements funded by the One-Cent Capital Projects Sales Tax for roads which was approved by voters in 2006 and earmarked $425 million specifically for local road projects. But it is set to expire in May. Voters may be asked to re-up on another such tax in 2014, and state legislators are bandying about ideas to pay for road and bridge improvements across South Carolina as the 2014 legislative session gets under way this week.

Although bitching about the state of affairs is a Grand Strand pastime for locals, not everyone is overly critical of our roadways.

“Actually I’m so grateful for the roads they have put in,” said local musician Phil Fox. “I’m reluctant to complain. As part of my computer tech gig I had to drive around here constantly, and the bypasses (S.C. 31 and S.C. 22) they built made a huge difference in my quality of life, especially in the summer.”

Murder-cycles?

This brings us to another category of motorists that share our infrastructure - whether former or current mayors want to nudge them off the road or not.

Back in August, as previously mentioned, AAA Carolinas warned that motorcyclists should be extra-wary while riding in Horry County.

Based on 2012 statistics, AAA claims that “the most dangerous county for motorcycle collisions and injurious motorcycle crashes was Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach, which ranked second in both categories in 2011 and third in 2010.”

Motorcycle safety especially comes into focus during the three major rallies held along the Grand Strand - the spring and fall Harley-Davidson rallies and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest, aka Black Bike Week.

Unfortunately, the roads were not kind for many who got their motors runnin’, headed out on the highway, looking for adventure in 2013.

According to Hix, the preliminary figures show that there were 17 motorcycle fatalities in Horry County in 2013, compared to 121 overall in South Carolina. This marks an increase over the previous year locally as there were 12 fatal motorcycle accidents in Horry County in 2012, and 110 statewide, Hix said.

“I think people need to be aware,” said Surfside Beach resident Kristine Romano, who rides a Harley-Davidson Softail. “I think most accidents occur when cars pull out in front of motorcycles. It is impossible to judge how fast a motorcycle is traveling. Being a rider in traffic doing the speed limit on any road in the county becomes virtually impossible to stop your bike if someone pulls out in front of you. If vehicles would slow down and wait to let the motorcycle pass it would save many lives.”

On the road, again

The S.C. Department of Safety has a nifty little Palmetto State logo with a crescent moon, Palmetto tree, and a cartoonish-looking highway wrapped around its east coast, where the Atlantic Ocean would be, sporting the slogan: “Target Zero Traffic Deaths - a goal we can all live with.”

Nice sentiment, but we know that’s virtually an unachievable goal, until we at least get those jet packs we were promised.

Unfortunately, the Palmetto State is already ahead of last year’s pace with 25 people having died on South Carolina highways from Jan. 1-12, compared to 24 during the same period in 2013, according to those much-cited preliminary figures. And Horry County saw its first couple of traffic fatalities as well, including a single car accident on U.S. 701 in Conway on Monday, claiming the life of a 70-year-old woman.

Trying to keep Horry County’s roads safe is a constantly moving target for Corp. Collins and the Highway Patrol’s Troop 5, a perpetual state of evaluation.

“We’re in the planning stage now,” he said. “We know spring breakers are coming down, and then after that, it’s the bike weeks and then summer.”

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