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Highway 17: New Pawleys median has little impact on collisions

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A raised concrete median on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district has not reduced the number of collisions as proponents claimed, according to data from the state Department of Public Safety. But while the number of collisions has increased slightly over last year, the number of injuries has decreased slightly.

The data is consistent with expectations of traffic engineers before construction began on the $3.75 million project in the winter of 2015. Work was completed last fall and two new traffic signals that were part of the project began operating in December. Engineers said the design should reduce injuries by reducing right-angle collisions even if the addition of traffic signals caused more rear-end collisions.

In the first six months of this year, there were 37 collisions on the highway between the traffic light at Waverly Road and Baskervill Drive. That’s the area where a two-way left-turn lane was replaced with a raised median that has designated breaks for left turns. There were 31 collisions in the area in the same period of 2015 and 62 for the year. In 2014, there were 54 collisions overall with 32 in the first six months.

The number of injuries increased from 13 to 26 between 2014 and 2015. There were 15 injuries in the first half of 2015. In the same period this year, there were 11 injuries.

“That’s good,” County Council Member Steve Goggans said. “It’s an improvement, no matter how marginal it may be.” He led a group of residents and business owners who opposed the design of the median project before stepping down from the group to run for the council seat. He said he still hears complaints about the project, but mostly about the U-turns that have replaced some left turns. “Everything is in the anecdotal category,” he said.

The number of collisions in the median project area has increased every year since 2010, according to data from the Department of Public Safety. There were less than 30 in 2010. The volume of traffic on the highway has also increased, said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Transportation Study, which approves DOT projects in the region.

“My gut reaction is that six months is too soon to look at it and try to make a comparison,” he said. He recently attended a conference for the state’s Target Zero campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities. “Their level of analysis was to look at things in three-year blocks at a minimum,” Hoeweler said.

The median opponents hired a traffic engineer to review the state’s plan and suggest alternatives. “Our traffic engineer told us first and foremost the place you’re going to have accidents are stop lights,” Goggans said.

“That’s to be expected,” Hoeweler said, and the data from accident reports filed by the S.C. Highway Patrol confirms it.

Nearly a third of the collisions and over half the injuries in the first sixth months of this year occurred at the Waverly Road/North Causeway intersection with Highway 17: a total of 12 collisions and six injuries. In the same period a year ago there were eight collisions and three injuries.

The median project added traffic signals on Highway 17 in front of the Pawleys Island Post Office and at the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersection. There were four collisions reported in front of the post office in 2014 and only one in 2015. So far this year there have been three. There were four collisions at the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersection in 2014, eight in 2015 and four in the first six months of this year.

An existing signal a Martin Luther King Road was also in the median project area. A quarter of the collisions in the median project area last year occurred at that intersection and 20 percent of the injuries. So far this year, less than 10 percent of the collisions occurred, none with injuries.

“The fact that we’ve put in a median that hasn’t moved the needle is not necessarily a surprise,” Goggans said.

A raised median has also been proposed for Highway 17 from Waverly Road south to the South Causeway intersection. In that area, where there is still a two-way left-turn lane, the number of collisions jumped last year from 30 to 50. A quarter of those collisions occurred at the Petigru Drive intersection, where a traffic signal was installed in March 2015 to accommodate traffic from the redevelopment of Pawleys Island Plaza and its Publix grocery store. There were three collisions at the intersection in 2014 and 12 in 2015.

In the first six months of 2016, there were seven collisions at the Petigru Drive intersection. Those accounted for just over half of all the collisions between Waverly Road and the South Causeway. There were 13 collisions for the period; identical to the same period in 2014 and down from 24 in that period in 2015.

Wain White was visiting from North Carolina during the median construction last year when his wife got stuck driving against traffic one night leaving the Hammock Shops. DOT installed better signage after they spoke with staff in Georgetown.

The Whites were back this summer. “It’s improved, but not where I think it should be,” he said. “If I wasn’t familiar with the area, I think it would be treacherous.”

Better marking of the left-turn lanes would help, he said.

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