Deadly I-26 getting a closer look from highway engineers
Brett Elliott, a Cottageville trucker, has seen people die in accidents on Interstate 26.
“It’s awful. It’s not wide enough,” he said.
He considers the interstate the deadliest stretch of road he drives in the Carolinas and Georgia.
Elliott said his feelings reflect the opinions of most truckers who drive I-26.
“It’s just not equipped to handle the kind of traffic it takes,” he said.
On many segments of I-26, average daily traffic has increased five-fold since the highway opened in the late 1960s. The interstate near its junction with Interstate 526 sees 133,500 vehicles daily on average, according to news reports.
Elliott said the stretch of I-26 from Orangeburg to Charleston is particularly hazardous. The state Department of Transportation has noticed the problem, too, and in response launched a study of fatalities in that area, said Tony Sheppard, director of traffic engineering.
What caught the eye of engineers is the 57 traffic deaths that happened in that section of the interstate from 2006 to 2009.
That is 42 percent of all fatalities on I-26 in South Carolina during that time, Sheppard said.
“This is what got us looking in that area,” he said.
The DOT is studying crash patterns to see what factors might be involved from an engineering standpoint.
“We haven’t gotten it boiled down to any sort of recommendation yet. It’s a priority for us to look at,” he said.
The latest available figures indicate I-26 is the deadliest interstate in South Carolina.
In 2009, 31 people died on I-26 followed by 20 deaths on Interstate 95 and 14 fatalities on Interstate 20. But secondary roads are the deadliest overall. In 2009, they claimed the lives of 345 people out of 781 killed on state roads and highways.
In about one-third of the fatalities on I-26, driving too fast for conditions was a factor that contributed to the accident.
About 12 percent of deadly accidents involved driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, said Emily Thomas, strategic highway safety plan manager for the state Department of Public Safety.
Improvements to I-26 are on the way. The federal highway bill passed by Congress in July allocates $1.2 billion over the next two years to South Carolina for an assortment of projects including widening 21 miles of I-26 in the Midlands.
The state recently completed widening I-26 from six lanes to eight between Ashley Phosphate Road and Interstate 526.
But the safety of the four-lane stretch of I-26 in rural areas north of Summerville remains an issue. In 2010, a Post and Courier analysis of I-26 found that mile per mile, the tree-lined section between Jedburg and Harleyville had nearly twice as many fatal wrecks than through Charleston and North Charleston, even though traffic is two to three times heavier in the Charleston metro area.
A CBS report, “America’s Deadliest Roads,” highlighted the dangers of I-26. State troopers responded with a crackdown on speeders and people who fail to wear seat belts. In four months, troopers wrote more than 1,000 speeding and seat belt tickets in what state highway engineers call the I-26 “high-crash corridor.”
Improvements followed near Harleyville and Ridgeville, such as rumble strips, to let drivers know when they are veering off the road and road resurfacing.
In a study released last month, South Carolina was ranked as the state with the most dangerous highways.
Carinsurancecomparison.com said it made that determination based on speeding fatalities per mile of interstate highway, the number of highway deaths per 1,000 highway miles driven and death rates released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The South Carolina Highway Patrol reports that 578 people died on state highways this year through Sept. 26. That compares with 612 fatalities for 2011. A person is killed every 10 hours on state highways and one driver dies every 23 hours in a DUI collision, according to a report posted at the state Department of Public Safety website.
Although interstates can be dangerous, more fatal collisions occurred on state secondary roads than elsewhere, according to 2009 figures. That year, 318 people died driving back roads.