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Highway 17: State data shows no accidents linked to median project

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Drivers are confused. Drivers are frustrated. But a review of traffic accident data shows they weren’t less safe because of the construction of a raised median on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district.

Work on the project to replace the two-way left-turn lane on 1.8 miles of highway between Baskervill Drive and the Waverly Road intersection began this spring. The raised median includes breaks for U-turns and left turns.

From March through the Fourth of July weekend, there were 32 traffic accidents in the project area. There were 28 in the area during the same period in 2014. There were 11 injuries this year, one more than a year ago.

The figures were compiled by the state Office of Highway Safety. Victoria Belton, a statistician in the office, cautioned that the data has not been finalized and could change as additional reports are entered. But the state’s data tallies with a list of traffic accidents compiled by Midway Fire and Rescue for the same period.

When work began on the median, Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman asked his staff to let him know if any of the accidents in the area appeared to be related to the project. “I can’t honestly tell you of any off the top of my head,” he said. “It may be because people are being very careful.”

The construction barrels that lined the highway served as a “traffic calming device,” said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which allocates state highway funds in the region. The accident data “is what I would expect to see,” he said.

Data from the Office of Highway Safety was also used by the Department of Transportation to justify the project. DOT said the accident rate was higher on this stretch of Highway 17 than comparable roads. But the data also showed that few accidents actually occured in the median even though it was often referred to by drivers as the “suicide lane.”

Most accidents take place at traffic signals, the data shows. From the start of the median construction through the Fourth of July half the accidents occurred around the traffic lights at Waverly and Martin Luther King Roads. The percentage was even higher in 2014, with 19 of the 28 accidents taking place at those two intersections. Two accidents took place in the median last year. No accidents were reported in the median for the same period this year.

“Driving too fast for conditions,” was listed as the primary cause of 14 accidents in the median project area this year, up from eight last year. That isn’t the same as speeding, which was not listed as a factor in any of the accidents.

“Failure to yield” was the cause of three accidents, down from seven in 2014. There were also two accidents caused by drunken driving, up from one in 2014.

Construction on the median has been done at night. All but two of the accidents in the project area took place during the day. The two night-time accidents were at the Waverly Road intersection. In the same period last year, three accidents occurred at night, and two of those were at traffic lights.

While the state data doesn’t show the new median was a factor in any of the accidents, DOT has altered the project timetable out of concern for safety, according to the project managers. Work was accelerated in front of Oak Lea because drivers were going the wrong way to get around a partially completed portion of the median. Last week, “Do Not Enter” and “No Left Turn” signs were put up out of concern that drivers were ending up going the wrong way in the designated median crossings. The signs weren’t scheduled to be installed until the end of the project in the fall.

The data does show drivers have reason to be concerned about safety. The number of accidents in the project area between March and the Fourth of July has increased from single digits in 2008 through 2010 and has risen in each of the last three years. Traffic volume has also increased since 2008, Hoeweler said.

DOT counts traffic during the year and produces an annual average, so no comparison is available for the March-July 4 period. “Anecdotally, you can feel there’s more traffic out there,” Hoeweler said. “It’s not just that three-month concentration. It’s year-round.”

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