Sunday is the first day of summer, even though temperatures have made it feel like summer in the Myrtle Beach area since late April and May.
The change in seasons also signifies a time when more traffic is on area highways as visitors come and go from the Grand Strand and locals enjoy outdoor activities.
Officials warn that influx of people increases the likelihood that something bad could occur on the roads or in the water, but being prepared can help minimize its impact. They offered some safety tips to protect yourself while driving, swimming and enjoying yourself this summer along the Grand Strand.
As summer begins, troopers and area police also will increase their patrols with the goal of improving public safety, reducing traffic congestion and minimizing crashes and injuries.Horry County troopers have already recorded 13 more traffic-related deaths this year than last year.
“We’re doing our summertime enforcement; we’re monitoring the beach routes for that extra traffic coming in,” said Cpl. Sonny Collins with the S.C. Highway Patrol. “We’ll be doing our increased visibility throughout the county. The goal yearly is to push fatalities down, so when you do see a spike then we look at every angle … and then try to address it with enforcement.”
There have been 32 people killed in traffic- and water-related incidents as of June 19 in Horry County versus 21 people killed in 2014, 26 people killed in 2013 and 21 people killed in 2012 during the same time period, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety. Municipality police departments record their own statistics and they are not included in that total.
More officers will be watching for aggressive driving, speeding, texting and driving, and those driving under the influence on area roadways.
“We keep stressing seat belts, distractions and speeding because that’s what we keep seeing over and over in these fatal crashes,” Collins said.
Pat Dowling, spokesman for the City of North Myrtle Beach, said their officers recommend motorists “drive defensively and never assume that other motorists around you are fully invested in the act of driving.”
“Some are looking for a restaurant, an amusement, hotel or other local destination; too many are texting – even though driving while texting is against the law in South Carolina; some are lost in music or conversation; others are behind schedule and trying to catch up; and some are just plain frustrated with the traffic and ready to act out at any moment,” Dowling said. “Also, when your traffic light turns from red to green, look both ways before entering an intersection. All too often, one or more cars will speed up to go through an intersection even after their traffic light has turned red.”
And for locals, Collins said, “the trip that took 15 minutes back in March, we know now takes 30 minutes, so go ahead and plan for that. Be calm. Other folks who are here and sharing the road with you may not know where they’re going, so patience is the key.”
So far this year, there have been four people killed on mo-peds, eight killed on motorcycles and 10 killed in vehicle crashes, according to the Horry County Coroner’s Office.
“The vehicle crashes are scattered throughout the county,” Collins said. “The majority of the motorcycle crashes are going to be near the coast because we had several associated with the motorcycle rallies. Then, our pedestrians are primarily centered in the strip between Conway and the beach.”
Residents and visitors should also use caution when walking to or from their destinations, even if they are just crossing the roadway to a parking lot, Collins said. So far this year there have been five people killed while walking along area roadways.
“Pedestrians are in the roadway and pedestrians must yield to vehicles with the only exception being when they are in the crosswalk,” Collins said. “Pedestrians and mo-ped riders, do whatever you can to make yourself more visible. Wear bright colors, have lights with you so motorists can see you.”
Planning ahead to avoid drinking and driving is also key, said Myrtle Beach police Lt. Joey Crosby, who works with an officer who had the most DUI arrests in the state last year with 105.
“If you’re planning an activity in which alcoholic drinks are involved, we certainly encourage you to have a plan in place,” Crosby said, noting to designate a driver or plan to call a taxi cab.
Crosby also said that because Patrolman First Class Shon McCluskey had the most DUI arrests in the state last year does not mean Myrtle Beach has more DUI drivers. He described McCluskey as being “well-trained in what he does” and aggressive in spotting those offenses.
But Crosby said he can also “attribute it to the influx of visitors we have coming into town. The beach is one of the major draws … and we are certainly increasing the amount of visitors we have on the beach each day.”
McCluskey declined to comment for this story.
Ocean surf temperatures along the Grand Strand are in the 80s, according to the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C., so it’s a perfect time to take a dip in the water to cool off from the exhaustive heat, but the beach also presents safety problems related to the potential for drowning or encounters with marine life, officials said.
Last weekend, two youths lost limbs after being attacked by sharks while swimming in waist-deep water at Oak Island, N.C. They are recovering from their injuries.
No shark bites have been reported along the Grand Strand, officials said, but there have been four drowning deaths recorded so far this year, which is near normal for the area, officials said.
“Be aware that the ocean is not just a bigger version of a swimming pool,” Dowling said. “It is dynamic, and in particular it has rip currents that can pop up unannounced. … Many of the drownings that have occurred in recent years along the Grand Strand have involved rip currents.”
“The variables appear to be that someone gets caught in one, panics, gets disoriented, and drowns, or, an inexperienced family member, friend or stranger tries to rescue someone caught up in a rip current, does not have the skills to do it, and they drown,” Dowling said and suggested going to www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov to learn about rip currents before going to the beach.
Three of the drownings occurred in the ocean and one in the Intracoastal Waterway, authorities said. All those deaths occurred between May 23 and June 14, three occurring during Memorial Day weekend.
Swimming near a lifeguard and going to the beach with a friend who knows your whereabouts will increase anyone’s chances of being safe while in the water, Crosby said.
“Alcohol on the beach is illegal so we encourage you to not bring alcohol on the beach,” Crosby said.
Officials also ask that residents and visitors remember to keep themselves safe by not becoming a target for criminals. That means locking their vehicles and stowing valuables out of sight.
“Always lock your car when you are not using it and, before you lock it, remove all valuables or hide them totally from view. While you are out having fun, others are moving from car to car seeking to profit from crimes of opportunity,” Dowling said. “If you go to the beach and hide your Rolex watch, wallet, jewelry or other prized possessions in your shoe or beach towel, chances are that it may not be there when you come out of the water or return from that long walk along the ocean’s edge. Leave the good stuff where it is safe.”
Dowling also said residents should appreciate the visitors who help offset tax costs for better roads and infrastructure, and attract businesses like restaurants and entertainment complexes to stay in the area.
“Residents should always remember that tourism is the only real and wholly viable industry that keeps the Grand Strand afloat,” Dowling said. “Appreciate our visitors and let them know we are glad they are here. They also add to the great diversity of our population. Most of us who live here year round discovered our community during a visit to it.”
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or on Twitter @tonyaroot.
By the numbers
As of June 19 in Horry County, there have been 32 deaths due to traffic incidents and drownings:
▪ 4 | drownings
▪ 4 | mo-ped-related deaths
▪ 9 | motorcycle-related deaths
▪ 5 | pedestrian deaths
▪ 10 | vehicle-related deaths
Source: S.C. Department of Public Safety