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Highway 17: Data shows accidents cluster at lights in median project area

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Almost half the accidents in the area where the paved median will be removed from Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district occurred in just two places: the intersections of Waverly Road and Martin Luther King Road. That’s the story told by four and a half years of accident data compiled by the state Department of Public Services.

The data shows there were 178 accidents in the 1.8 miles between Waverly Road and Baskervill Drive where a raised median is proposed by the state Department of Transportation. It covers 67 months from January 2008 through July 2013. There were 90 injuries and one death.

DOT says installing a raised median will reduce accidents. At public meetings in 2012, it cited data from 2007 through 2011 that showed an average of 3.4 collisions a month in the median project area. That was twice the rate on comparable roads, the department said.

However, 86 of 178 accidents included in the summary from Public Safety occurred within 500 feet of the two intersections with traffic lights. More than a quarter of the accidents occur with 250 feet of the intersections.

“Accidents are more likely to occur around traffic signals,” said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which directs federal funds to area highway projects. “Hopefully, the accidents are less severe.”

The $3.75 million median project will add two traffic signals and restrict left turns onto the highway to intersections with traffic lights. There will be 16 places where cars traveling on the highway can make left turns or U-turns across traffic.

The clustering of accidents around the traffic signals “is not uncommon,” said Wayne Sarasua, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Clemson University. He is looking at accident data for a study that looks at safety and the way highway access is managed. “If you put a median in, you’re going to consolidate the accidents at the intersections,” he said.

The median project has drawn opposition from business owners who are concerned about the impact on customers. They have also questioned the safety of the project.

The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway received accident data from the Office of Highway Safety in August in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. It has hired a traffic engineer to review the DOT plan and he is now studying the accident data.

“What we’re trying to deduce is: Is the current median a significant contributor to accidents on Highway 17? Is the current plan going to do anything to reduce accidents?” said Steve Goggans, an organizer of the coalition.

The coalition used the data provided by the Office of Highway Safety within the Department of Public Safety to identify accidents that occurred within the project boundaries and then requested Highway Patrol reports for 207 incidents.

“Based on what we requisitioned, we are finding fewer than that in the project area,” Goggans said.

The coalition received a one-page summary from DOT that showed 95 crashes in the project area from 2008 though 2011. That included accidents south of Waverly Road and north of Baskervill Drive, leading coalition members to suggest DOT was padding its numbers.

But the coalition members have also learned that getting precise information about accidents isn’t easy.

The Department of Public Safety sent the coalition data for every traffic accident on Highway 17 in Georgetown County. “My philosophy has been to send more rather than less,” said Jordan Hix, a statistician and spokesman for the Office of Highway Safety.

Along with the date, time and conditions, the latitude and longitude of the accident location is recorded. That’s helpful for sorting through the data, but not always accurate, Hix explained. Only since 2011 have Highway Patrol cars have computerized reporting tied to GPS data. Before, GPS data could place the accident at the site where the trooper wrote the report or, if the coordinates were not listed to several decimal places, somewhere off the highway.

“It takes somebody who has knowledge of the area” to sort through the data, Hix said.

For the coalition, that was Mike Redmond, who owns the engineering firm ETS at Pawleys Island. “He spent hours going through the data,” Goggans said.

The Coastal Observer also obtained the accident data from the Office of Highway Safety. Hix pointed out that the data for 2011 and 2012 was only preliminary and more accidents could be added. Accidents in the median project area accounted for 7 percent of all accidents on Highway 17 in Georgetown County.

Of the 178 accidents that could be placed within the median project area, 58 involved injuries. “Failure to yield” was listed as the cause in 16 of those. “Driving too fast for conditions” was the cause of 10. There were also five caused by “driving under the influence.”

Although popularly known as the “suicide lane,” only five of the 178 accidents reviewed took place in the paved median. Only one of those was a head-on collision and it resulted in the only injury of the five.

There were 36 collisions in the four-way intersections, but the vast majority of accidents didn’t involve junctions.

The coalition has suggested DOT should look at driveways and right turns in assessing the highway. Yet only 19 accidents occurred at driveways, according to the state’s data.

Sarasua said driveways ought to be a concern because crashes there tend to be more severe. “We have many roads that don’t meet the minimum guidelines” created by DOT for space between driveways, he said. “You’ll see that there’s a good density along Highway 17.”

He has traveled the length of the highway, although he isn’t familiar with the Pawleys Island median project. But he said it isn’t surprising and he believes a raised median will improve safety. “Studies have shown they’re not as bad a businesses think,” he said. “A well-designed streetscape can actually enhance access management without impacting the businesses.”

And he added, “There’s no doubt it will improve traffic operations in the corridor.”

The median project has its origins in a 2003 study that looked at ways to maintain the capacity of Highway 17.

“The other side says it’s all about safety,” Goggans said. “If anything, it’s about traffic flow. They’re throwing the community under the bus to achieve it.”

“Everything that we’ve tried to put out there is that there are tradeoffs,” Hoeweler said. “We’re trading convenience for safety.”

Of the accidents that took place within the project area, over a third were angle collisions. The largest number, 40 percent, were rear-end collisions, which are considered less harmful.

Hoeweler said congestion increases impatience, causing drivers to pull out into traffic. “Failure to yield” was listed as the cause of a quarter of all the accidents in the project area.

“Hopefully, these [new] lights will produce openings so they’ll be able to get a safe distance,” he said.

The Citizens Coalition hasn’t opposed the two new traffic signals. “But that said, if most of your accidents occur at stoplights, do we need more red lights?” Goggans asked. “It’s a valid question.”

He thinks it’s one among many the coalition’s traffic engineer will be able to answer once he completes his review of the accident data.

Hix, the statistician with the Office of Highway Safety, said he recently got a request for Highway 17 accident data from Stantec, the engineering firm that created the plan for the median project. He cautioned about how the data is used.

“A lot of people want to compare danger. ‘Can you give us some statistics?’ No, not really,” Hix said. “It’s really not the crash. It’s the nature of the driver and how he responds to the situation that led to the crash.”

The Citizens Coalition is holding a fundraiser today at Caledonia Golf and Fish Club to cover the cost of its efforts. It includes food, drinks and live music.

It runs from 5 to 8 p.m. The cost is $25.

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