COLUMBIA – When South Carolina’s traffic fatality rate ranked worst in the nation last year, some saw the report as ammunition for making the case the state needs to be spend more fixing roads that are contributing to highway carnage.
A review of accident records for 2016 by The Greenville News, however, reveals that the link between South Carolina’s road conditions and highway casualties is elusive and difficult to document.
Of the 936 fatal accidents reported in 2016, only 12 listed road conditions as a contributing factor, according to preliminary data for the year. And some of those involved ice or snow, records show. Road conditions were cited as a contributing factor in just 1 percent of the 39,035 accidents involving injuries, according to the preliminary data. More accidents had animals in the road listed as a primary factor than road conditions.
What the numbers don't show, advocates say, are the dangers built into the state's highway system – hazards worsened by years of neglect that in some cases can all but eliminate the margin for error when events go horribly wrong.
High speeds or inattentiveness may be the underlying cause of the wreck, they say, but it might have been narrow shoulders, poorly designed curves or trees left to grow too near the road that turn a bad accident into a catastrophic one, particularly on rural roads.
Lawmakers are debating plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on road improvements, raising the state's gas tax and other fees in the process.
But as lawmakers focus on finding the money to improve the roads, critics say they may be overlooking another way of saving lives – restoring the number of state troopers patrolling the roads to levels they haven’t seen in almost a decade.
In 2008, South Carolina had about 950 troopers, according to the Department of Public Safety. As of last month, according to the agency, the number of troopers was 805 – largely unchanged since 2011, though 43 new troopers are enrolled in basic training at the Criminal Justice Academy.
Among Southeastern states, Tennessee and Georgia have about the same number of troopers as South Carolina, while North Carolina and Florida have twice as many and Virginia has nearly 2,000.
Meanwhile, the Highway Patrol’s total budget from the state’s General Fund has fallen from $52.9 million in fiscal year 2008 to $47.8 million in the current year, according to legislative budget records.
Since 2000, the number of registered vehicles in the state has increased by more than 1 million, while the number of licensed drivers has grown by about 800,000, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms told The News that he believes the conditions of the roads, the presence of law enforcement and the condition of vehicles all contribute to the high number of crashes in South Carolina.
"Today, in a torrent before I (arrived in) Columbia, my car skidded sideways," he said. "If I went off the road and hit something, it would have been (listed as) weather related. But if the road had adequate drainage, there wouldn't have been water puddling in the storm."
"Those are the safety enhancements that might not be specifically listed in a report but they are contributing factors to the number of deaths and accidents on our roads," said Grooms, who said he supports increased funding for more troopers.
Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, said that while roads might not cause fatal accidents, safer roads might allow drivers to survive their mistakes.
He said he is convinced that had the state worked on such improvements over the past three decades, they “would have had a substantial impact on our fatality statistics.”
Doug Jenkins, a Charleston lawyer who handles accident cases involving road defects, agreed that the raw statistics can be “misleading.”
“Because oftentimes these cases get documented as 'too fast for conditions,' as opposed to being accurately reported as a road defect,” he said
To be sure, South Carolina has a problem with both bad roads and traffic deaths.
In 2008, nearly one third of the state's primary routes – where half of all travel occurs – were graded in poor condition, according to the state Department of Transportation. By 2015, the number of miles graded poor had grown to more than half.
The lack of maintaining the pavement, officials say, means many roads will have to be rebuilt. "We have waited too long," Transportation Secretary Christy Hall told senators recently.
The Legislature is now in its fourth year of debating road funding. Last year lawmakers passed a bill to send more than $200 million to DOT to be used to leverage $2 billion in bonds for road projects, most of it for a handful of expensive interstate projects.
This year, the House has passed a plan to raise about $600 million more per year for roads, while the Senate is still considering a bill that would raise about $800 million more per year and also provide tax relief.
According to DOT, the state is currently spending about $415 million a year on pavements when it should be spending about $900 million a year. Overall, according to the agency, the difference between what the state is spending and what it needs for infrastructure, including safety improvements, widening and bridge needs, is $1.1 billion annually.
At the same time the pavement was crumbling, the state's death rate placed it among the worst in the country.
In 2015, the most recent year for which federal data is available, South Carolina had the highest fatality rate in the nation. With 1.89 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven, the state far outpaced the national average of 1.13. Rhode Island had the lowest rate at .57.
South Carolina’s immediate neighbors ranked better in fatality rates, at 1.21 deaths per 100 million miles driven for Georgia and 1.23 for North Carolina.
About a third of the state’s accidents in 2015 involved alcohol-impaired drivers, while another third involved speeding, according to federal highway safety records.
“We have the highest fatality rate in the nation, period,” Hall told senators, making a link between bad roads and safety. “The real cost of deferred maintenance is just that. Our fatality rate is 53 percent higher than the national average. And significantly higher than our neighboring states.”
“It’s more than an issue of convenience of getting from Point A to Point B," said Grooms. "It’s a matter of life or death on our highway system.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, a member of the transportation panel, points to nearly 7,000 crashes in rural areas.
“If these folks whose lives have been affected in South Carolina are not more important than lobbying groups from wherever from across this nation who don’t want us to answer to these 7,000 families, if this doesn’t count, what does?” he asked.
This week, House lawmakers referred to the state's traffic fatalities in debating a road-funding package that passed 97-18.
In explaining the bill, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill told the House that in 2012, about 1,200 claims were filed against DOT by motorists or family members over damage and injuries caused by bad roads. In 2016, 3,638 claims were filed, he said. “That just tells you the severity of where we find ourselves today,” he said.
Simrill, who has spearheaded the House efforts at passing a road-funding bill for the past three years, told the body this week that, “the other part of this is the deadliness of our highways.” He said there has been almost 27 percent increase in road deaths in the past three years and 2017 “already is trending worse.”
“All of those components that we talk about, they all play in together, of having deadly highways, losing jobs to Georgia and North Carolina because they passed a (roads) plan and we did not. Having all the claims we have – 3,638 claims in 2016, alone – it tells you the roadways are not only dangerous but now is the time to act.”
One lawmaker, freshman Rep. Katie Arrington of Summerville, told the House about a mother who was injured and thrown from her car and her son killed when their vehicle flipped this week in her district after running into an inadequate shoulder of the highway.
The primary factors for serious accidents are driving too fast, failure to yield, DUI, disregarding traffic signs and signals, and following too closely, according to records of the state Department of Public Safety.
In only three of last year's 936 fatal crashes were roads listed as a primary factor, DPS said. Each accident can have up to five contributing factors, including one listed as the primary factor. In one accident the road-related factor was blamed on debris, according to the agency. In another it was an obstruction, and in the third it was a rut, hole or bump.
Nearly half of the factors attributed to roads concerned surface conditions of the pavement, such as wet roads.
Of three fatal collisions in 2016 that occurred in the Upstate and had roadway conditions as a factor, all three were tied to ice or snow, the records show, though one driver was impaired. Two occurred in Greenville County on roads that had icy patches, according to the investigative reports that noted the drivers who died were driving too fast for conditions when they hit the ice and spun into other vehicles. The third fatality in Union County was a single-vehicle accident on roads covered with ice and slush and involved a driver who was under the influence of alcohol and tested positive for opiates, according to the accident report.
Hall said it's difficult to measure what portion of crashes are due to bad roads.
"I do believe deferred maintenance has caught up with us," she said. "What we're seeing on these fatalities in our rural areas is certainly a high price to pay for the condition of deferred maintenance we have accumulated over the years. It's not too hard to compare the safety map with all the fatalities and serious injuries versus the map that shows actual pavement conditions. While you can't really draw a one-to-one comparison, there are some similarities."
Tiffany Wright, a spokeswoman for AAA Carolinas, a highway safety and motorist advocacy group, said South Carolina is known for its rural road fatalities.
“It’s because of the way they are designed,” she said. “They have no shoulders or they don’t have big shoulders and they are poorly lit. And that unfortunately can lead to traffic deaths.”
Nationally, she said, most accidents are caused by driver behavior, such as speeding, distracted driving and drunk driving.
“This is just my opinion, but I don’t think as far as the national front that road conditions are a major contributing factor to road deaths,” she said.
She said she agrees that while bad roads may not be the major cause of South Carolina road deaths, road improvements, particularly those aimed at safety measures, can help drivers survive their mistakes.
“With no shoulders, normally correctable mistakes can become catastrophic because there is not much room for error,” she said. “(Poor) road conditions don’t give them an out, they don’t give them a chance to correct a mistake.”