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Highway 17: New traffic lights bring new source of accidents

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Although some residents say they are concerned about the safety of a raised median under construction on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district, more accidents are likely to follow the installation of two traffic signals that are also part of the project. But even with more accidents, those intersections should be safer, according to traffic planners.

Traffic engineers say accidents are most likely to occur around intersections with signals, and that is borne out by data on two signals installed in the Pawleys Island area in the last year. The number of traffic accidents around the intersection of Highway 17 and Petigru Drive in the four months after a traffic signal was installed was double the number in all of 2014, according to data collected by the state Office of Highway Safety. The light was installed in March in advance of the opening of the Publix supermarket as part of the reconstruction of Pawleys Island Plaza.

In 2014, there were five accidents at the intersection, which includes Alston Road on the east side of the highway. One involved a pedestrian who was drunk, according to the data compiled from Highway Patrol reports. There was one accident this year before the light was installed in March. From then to the end of June, there were 11 accidents at the intersection.

A traffic signal was installed on Highway 17 at Tyson Drive in August 2014. The intersection includes an entrance to Pawleys Market and a Lowes Foods store. Before the supermarket opened, there were no accidents reported at the intersection. The state Department of Transportation installed the light, funded in part by the shopping center developer, after three accidents in the weeks after Lowes Foods opened.

There have been seven accidents since the light was installed, according to the state data.

The project now under way to replace the two-way left-turn lane on Highway 17 from Waverly Road to Baskervill Drive includes adding traffic signals at the Pawleys Island Post Office and the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersection. Those locations were based on the number of vehicles making left turns, said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study. The committee of state and local officials allocations state funds for transportation projects in the region. The signals will create gaps in highway traffic to allow left turns and U-turns from designated breaks in the median.

“Everything is a trade off,” Hoeweler said. Although accidents cluster around intersections with signals, they tend to be rear-end collisions. “Side angle crashes are the big injury accidents,” he said. Those are the ones the median is intended to reduce.

There were nine injuries at the Petigru and Tyson intersections from January 2014 through June 2015. Four of those occurred in a four-vehicle accident at Tyson before the traffic lights were installed. Only three people were injured in accidents since the traffic lights were installed.

It’s hard to say whether the traffic signals create opportunities for new accidents or shift accidents from other locations, said Eric Tripi, a regional manager in Detroit for Parsons, a global engineering firm. He reviewed the Highway 17 median project for a citizens group that tried unsuccessfully to get the state Department of Transportation to change the design.

The rise in accidents at new signals isn’t surprising. “People have to get used to it,” Tripi said. “You might find a few more rear-end collisions.”

While the median project has drawn criticism from some residents, “this is not an unusual design. It’s all over the country,” Tripi said. “Studies have shown that it’s safer than a five-lane highway.”

The concerns during construction aren’t unusual either. “Things are always a little dicey,” Tripi said. “People will figure it out.”

Since the start of the Pawleys Island median project, Hoeweler said he’s heard from local officials in other parts of the region who want similar projects. Among the requests he gets, lower speed limits and new signals or stop signs are the most common, he said.

Pawleys median: DOT ‘urges caution’ midway through project

The state Department of Transportation issued a statement Wednesday saying drivers on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island area should use caution while construction continues on a raised median.

“Use caution while traveling on U.S. Route 17 from Baskerville Drive to Waverly Drive,” it says.

Work began on the project this spring. This month, the contractor installed directional signs ahead of schedule and there are new pavement markings in the new turn lanes. The work is scheduled for completion in November.

“It’s awfully late in coming, but better never late than never,” County Council Member Steve Goggans said. He led a group opposed to the design before running for council last year.

Goggans said he is surprised by the lack of accidents in the construction zone. “There’s been countless testimony of near accidents,” he said. “I’ve personally seen some near misses.”

State data shows little increase in accidents since the project started compared with the same period last year.

But Goggans said the changes to the construction schedule, while welcome, reflect “a lack of planning” by DOT. “Other projects around the state have temporary markings,” he said.

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