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Cheap gas and balmy weather fuel a spike in S.C. traffic deaths

A worker loads a severely damaged semi cab onto the flatbed of his truck, after an eight-vehicle wreck in South Carolina that started after a tractor trailer on Interstate 95 hydroplaned and hit a tree, causing the tree to fall into the roadway.
A worker loads a severely damaged semi cab onto the flatbed of his truck, after an eight-vehicle wreck in South Carolina that started after a tractor trailer on Interstate 95 hydroplaned and hit a tree, causing the tree to fall into the roadway. The Island Packet

After years of near-historic lows, 2015 saw an abrupt spike in traffic fatalities on South Carolina’s roads – partly due to an unlikely cause.

“We can’t ignore the fact that as gas prices have decreased we have seen more people on the roads,” said South Carolina Highway Patrol Sgt. Bob Beres. “This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see a lot more collisions, but we will if people are making the wrong decision behind the wheel.”

As of Monday, there had been 875 fatal crashes this year, compared with 744 in 2014. They had resulted in 942 deaths, compared with 813 in 2014, according to the South Carolina Office of Highway Safety.

As the numbers continued to climb this year, South Carolina’s public safety officers, highway patrol and troopers expanded their outreach in old ways and new.

The week before Christmas, the state graduated 40 new troopers, bringing the total number to 772. They went straight to work during the busiest season of the year, as an estimated 1.93 million South Carolinians were expected to travel 50 miles or more from home during the holidays, about 90 percent of them by car.

To add to the list of concerns, unseasonably high temperatures have officers worried there may be even more people driving irresponsibly this month.

27,000 DUI arrests in South Carolina in 2014, up by 3,000 from the year before.

“There are people out on motorcycles and mopeds, and way more pedestrians walking around than if it was cold,” said Beres. “They’re enjoying the weather, having picnics and family gatherings outside, and driving out to a lot more holiday parties and football games.”

Public safety officers have been testing new ways to reach out to vulnerable drivers this year on social media. For the first time, a handful of troopers – such as Beres, who now has over 4,000 followers – received official Twitter accounts to connect to the community. New programs – including “Sober or Slammer” and “Target Zero” – got their own hashtags and YouTube videos.

Electronic billboards with South Carolina’s count of road fatalities went up on highways, and new television and radio ads tried to hammer home the top three causes of traffic deaths in the state: drunk driving, speeding and not wearing seat belts. A television commercial that ran in the Lowcountry for two weeks before Christmas encouraged viewers to pick a SANTA – a “Sober All Night Totally Awesome” designated driver.

In 2013, South Carolina had the highest number of drunk driving fatalities in the country, with 44 percent of traffic deaths attributable to intoxicated drivers. That is well above the national average of 31 percent.

South Carolina had the ninth highest drunk-driving death toll in 2014 despite being 24th in population, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For the coming year, the state has found a new ally in its efforts to bring down the number of drunk driving fatalities. The popular transportation app Uber partnered with the South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to raise money and awareness while offering another way to get home after drinking.

“Through this partnership, we can educate South Carolinians about safe alternatives, like Uber, to getting behind the wheel while intoxicated and hopefully making drunk driving an issue of the past,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said at the launch of the initiative earlier this month.

However, there is only so much safety officers can do to decrease the number of deadly crashes.

“It boils down to personal responsibility,” Beres said. “We can’t be there when you’re leaving the party drunk. When we see you you’re already on the roadway.”

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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