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Highway 17: More accidents occur south of median project area

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

While a plan to install a raised median on Highway 17 has focused attention north of the Waverly Road intersection, a review of state data shows there were slightly more accidents in the commercial district south of the intersection between 2008 and the middle of this year. And they were more harmful accidents, according to the data.

Data compiled by the state Office of Highway Safety shows there were 163 crashes between the Waverly Road intersection and Smalls Loop, an area with a paved median that allows two-way left turns. There were 150 accidents along Highway 17 north of the intersection to Baskervill Drive, a 1.8 mile stretch where the state Department of Transportation plans to replace the paved median with a raised median.

There were also 28 accidents that took place in the middle of the Waverly Road/North Causeway intersection with Highway 17. Opponents of the median project question whether those should be included in any evaluation of the project’s safety, as DOT’s consultants have done.

“There’s nothing I can see that has changed at that intersection,” said Eric Tripi, a traffic engineer hired by opponents of the median project. “I don’t see how anything is going to change there.”

Traffic engineers agree that traffic signals, such as the one at the Waverly intersection, are generally the scene of more accidents. They point out that the types of accidents that occur are usually less severe.

Of the 28 accidents that happened in the Waverly intersection, three were head-on and 15 were angle collisions, the types considered the most harmful. A third of the crashes involved injuries, a rate slightly higher than the rest of the median project area.

For the 1.6 miles of highway south of Waverly, 37 percent of the crashes resulted in injuries. There were 86 people injured and two killed. While angle collisions accounted for 31 percent of accidents north of the intersection, they were reported in 40 percent of the collisions to the south. There were no head-on collisions reported south of the intersection.

“Driving too fast for conditions” was listed as single greatest cause of the accidents in the median project area; 28 percent of the total. Along the southern stretch of highway “failure to yield” was the factor cited most often, showing up in 33 percent of crashes.

In both sections of Highway 17, the largest number of accidents occurred around intersections with traffic signals. For the southern portion, 13 percent of crashes took place within 500 feet of the Waverly/North Causeway intersection. That rose to 20 percent when the area around True Blue Drive was included. Another 21 percent of accidents occurred within 500 feet of the South Causeway intersection.

In his review of accident data for the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway, Tripi looked closely at crashes that occurred at driveways where people were entering the highway. He didn’t find enough to justify the proposed restrictions on left turns in the median project area, he said. Wayne Sarasua, an assistant professor at Clemson University, is conducting an assessment of driveway-related crashes on highways around the state. His students plotted collisions from 2010 through 2012 on Highway 17 and found few in the median project area that involved driveways.

In the median project area and the area south of the Waverly intersection, state data shows only 11 percent of accidents are related to driveways.

The $3.75 million median project is scheduled to start next year. A similar project has been proposed for the southern portion of the Pawleys Island business district. It was endorsed by Georgetown County Council, but no funds have been allocated by DOT.

However, there are changes proposed for the stretch of highway to the south. They aren’t being driven by DOT.

A traffic signal at Petigru Drive is included in the redevelopment of Pawleys Island Plaza. The project was initially proposed in 2012 for a Walmart, but now Publix has announced plans to open a grocery store in the shopping center in early 2015.

The signal was one of the conditions included in Georgetown County’s approval of the redevelopment. “They had to get that red light before a certificate of occupancy was issued,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

A traffic study for the redevelopment, based on a shopping center, showed it would generate 5,758 new trips per day. Critics of the Walmart said this was low, and the formula used to estimate traffic actually shows a high volume of traffic created by a supermarket. But the study showed that in either case there would be enough new traffic to warrant DOT allowing a traffic signal at Petigru Drive.

The study was done by Stantec, the same firm that DOT hired to create the plan to eliminate the paved median on Highway 17 north of Waverly Road. Stantec also recommended that the paved median south of Petigru Drive be restricted to left turns for northbound traffic.

DOT hasn’t approved the Petigru traffic light, said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study. “DOT wants them to line up with Alston Road,” he said.

Petigru on the west side of the highway is less than 50 feet north of Alston Road on the east side, but there are businesses on the street corners.

In the last five and a half years, there were 15 accidents within 500 feet of those intersections or 9 percent of the total for the southern portion of the Pawleys business district. That was the highest number for any intersection without a traffic signal.

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