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Highway 17: Crash data shows Litchfield corridor has more than good looks

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

In the landscaped corridor of Highway 17 through Litchfield, there are fewer serious accidents and fewer injuries than in the areas in Pawleys Island with a paved center median, according to accident data collected by the state.

A review of crash data from 2008 through July 2013 shows there were 285 accidents from Baskervill Drive to Sandy Island Road and 26 percent of those resulted in injuries. In the same period, a third of the accidents in the 1.8-mile section from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road had injuries. That is the area where the state Department of Transportation plans to install a raised median.

A review of data from the state Office of Highway Safety appears to bear out on a local level the findings of traffic engineers who say that there are safety benefits in separating traffic moving in opposite directions and directing the turns that are made across traffic.

The landscaped median through Litchfield was created by the Litchfield Co. in the 1980s and expanded by the nonprofit Litchfield Beautification Foundation, which continues to maintain the plantings. The corridor covers 2.8 miles and includes three traffic signals and 26 median cuts.

True to the conventional wisdom, most of the accidents in the Litchfield corridor occur around the traffic signals. That’s the same for the section of Highway 17 proposed for the median project and the portion south of the Waverly Road/North Causeway intersection where a raised median is due to be installed in a future project.

The Litchfield corridor differs in the nature of the collisions. Rear-end collisions, among the least harmful, account for 60 percent of the accidents in the corridor. In the Pawleys Island area, they account for 37 percent of accidents.

Angle collisions are considered more harmful. They account for 22 percent of collisions in the Litchfield corridor. In the Pawleys Island area, 37 percent of crashes were angle collisions.

Over all, there were 119 injuries reported in accidents in the Litchfield corridor and no fatalities. During the same period, there were 176 injuries and three deaths in the Pawleys Island area with a paved median. Traffic on Highway 17 averaged just over 30,000 vehicles a day during the period. That is projected to rise to over 40,000 vehicles a day in five years.

The largest factor in accidents in the Litchfield corridor was listed as “driving too fast for conditions.” That doesn’t necessarily mean speeding, according to statisticians. It was cited as the primary cause in 40 percent of the accidents. In the Pawleys Island area, “failure to yield” was the principal cause, cited in 29 percent of crashes.

“I would have thought they might not be going as fast,” said Tom Leis, president of the Litchfield Beautification Foundation, since they would be looking at the landscape.

In his three years on the foundation board, the major safety concern he has heard is about sight lines in the median being blocked by the landscape. “We react to every one,” Leis said. “We go out in the car with them and cut where necessary.”

Only 10 percent of accidents in the Litchfield corridor occurred at cross-overs, according to the state data.

“I’m not surprised,” said Bill McElroy, the former foundation president. “People are very careful.”

In his years on the board, about $10,000 has been spent to replace plants that have been hit by vehicles. About half of that has been reimbursed by the drivers’ insurance companies, McElroy said.

Trees were listed as a factor in five single-vehicle crashes. Only one resulted in injury. Trees are no longer allowed under the state Department of Transportation guidelines for median plantings. The size of the plants are limited according to their distance from an intersection.

The beautification foundation has actually removed some palms and pears from the median as they outgrew the space, McElroy said.

“We’re quite happy with the safety issue,” he said.

The foundation also works with DOT on other improvements. The northbound left-turn lane at the Willbrook Boulevard intersection was recently extended. That required digging up some plants.

Although safety was a factor, there was also an issue of traffic flow, said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which allocated federal funds to local road projects. It is one of two projects scheduled for the Litchfield corridor. The other will realign the entrance to Litchfield Country Club with the Litchfield Drive traffic signal. That’s a $746,000 project scheduled for 2015.

“Safety is a factor in scoring how that intersection ranks,” Hoeweler said. “DOT has taken it into consideration.”

Of the three intersections with traffic signals, the one at Litchfield Drive has the most accidents, 63 within 500 feet of the intersection. There were 42 within the same distance from the Willbrook intersection and 19 at Boyle Drive. The count at Litchfield Drive also included accidents that state troopers, whose reports form the basis for the data, measured from Country Club Drive.

Hoeweler said he hasn’t seen any official study of accident data for the Litchfield corridor, but told of the results of the Coastal Observer’s review, he said “I’m sort of relieved to hear it.”

The Pawleys Island median project has opposition from business owners who are concerned that a raised median that restricts left turns will lead customers to shop elsewhere. The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway has hired a traffic engineer to review accident data from the median project area. The results are due to be released next week.

Steven Goggans, an organizer of the coalition, said he wasn’t surprised by the data from Litchfield. “They have a few advantages we don’t have down here,” he said.

For one, the Litchfield median is 32 feet wide. At Pawleys Island, it’s 16 feet. In Litchfield, “you can slide into the median and make a left turn or a U-turn or sit and wait,” Goggans said. The narrower median at Pawleys Island has led to turning areas know as “loons” to accommodate U-turns at some of the 16 median cuts that are proposed.

Another factor, Goggans said, is that “in Litchfield, right-hand access is controlled. In Pawleys, it’s wide open.”

Driveways were the location of 7 percent of accidents in the Litchfield corridor. In the Pawleys median project area, they were a factor in 11 percent of accidents. Goggans pointed out that most of the major shopping areas in Litchfield have limited driveways.

“We advocate giving every property owner an access, but you begin to organize the stuff on the right side and vastly improve safety and flow,” Goggans said.

In Litchfield, the median has always been either grass or landscaping and that has limited the expansion of driveways, Hoeweler said. At an intersection such as Crooked Oak Drive, where a shopping center has been approved but never built on the northwest corner, it’s unlikely that future development would get a median cut, he said. It would be more likely to get a right-in driveway but rely on Crooked Oak for left turns.

On the portion of Highway 17 between the North and South Causeways to Pawleys Island, the design of a raised median will be more difficult because there are more high-traffic businesses such as convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. “There are more curb cuts than where we are working now,” Hoeweler said. “It will be more difficult to make everything work.”

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