During afternoon rush hour, Interstate 26 traffic snaked along as eastbound drivers queued up in an exit lane for Mount Pleasant. "This is every day," said Highway Patrol Senior Trooper H.R. Wimberly.
On I-26 westbound, things weren't much better as a long line of drivers waited to take the College Park Road exit.
"This is a problem because you've got people stopping on the interstate," she added.
Out on the highway, lead-footed drivers set the pace in both directions.
"Speeding is a big problem," Wimberly said.
In addition, the sheer volume of traffic is an issue, particularly if there is an accident. No place on a South Carolina interstate has a higher traffic count than I-26 from the U.S. Highway 52 Connector to Ashley Phosphate Road. There, an average total of 151,400 vehicles pass through daily.
Since 2006, traffic there has grown by 25 percent, according to the state Department of Transportation. The No. 2 most congested stretch of South Carolina interstate is I-26 from Remount Road to Interstate 526 where the average daily traffic is 133,400 drivers.
In comparison, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge average traffic count is 75,500 daily.
The 2012 traffic counts are the latest available, officials said.
Rapid growth drives the area's highway congestion. Driver behavior is an issue. South Carolina motorists are the second worst in the country, according to a highly publicized report that also ranks the state's roads as the worst nationally. People here have not embraced mass transit or carpooling. Most vehicles have a single occupant. An area transit system beyond buses is one solution that is the subject of a major study. Meanwhile, people look for the best way to get to work in their cars.
Hard to avoid
Because of unpredictable travel times on I-26, Harun Rashid instead takes Rivers Avenue to his job at the old Naval Base where he works as a senior planner for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, a regional planning agency.
"Congestion during the morning and afternoon (traffic) peaks is definitely an issue in this corridor," Rashid said.
Daily I-26 traffic, plus slowdowns caused by accidents, are the main reasons Rashid takes Rivers, he said.
Even with congestion that prompts some to take alternative routes, I-26 speeders are still a problem, Wimberly said. Excuses for driving too fast run the gamut.
A woman who raced past Wimberly in an emergency lane explained that she was in a hurry to see her sister have a baby. A common excuse is "late for work."
"You get that every day," she said.
Going too fast
On Thursday, Wimberly drove the posted speed limit in a marked Highway Patrol Dodge Durango. Some drivers who seemed indifferent to the presence of law enforcement cruised past her going 10 mph too fast. Because of liability issues related to her civilian passengers, Wimberly did not do traffic enforcement.
Interstate speeds can vary widely. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the average speed in the westbound lanes of I-26 near the U.S. 52 Connector was 39 mph. In comparison, drivers headed east toward Charleston averaged 71 mph at that time at the same location, according to data provided by Wimberly.
Average speeding tickets range from $81 to $355 and can result in 2 to 6 penalty points on a driver's license, Wimberly said.
Other traffic problems
Although a big issue, speeding is only part of the picture on I-26. Rear-end collisions, distracted and careless driving, not using seat belts and improper lane changes are factors, she said.
Some 57 percent of crashes in Berkeley and Charleston counties last year happened on I-26, she said. Driving too fast for conditions was a contributing factor in 52 percent of the accidents. Speeding was the reason for 65 percent of citations issued. Improper lane changes accounted for 27 percent of tickets, she said.
Driver inattention is an increasing concern.
"Everybody is so focused on other things than the road," she said.
Reading a text message takes an average of 5 seconds. In that time, a driver can travel the length of a football field and suddenly be in a situation from which he or she can't recover control of the car.
"It's just as bad as DUI," she said.
Putting on make-up, reading and eating while driving can lead to similar results, she said.
The state has no law against texting while driving but some municipalities have outlawed it. Careless driving statutes can be applied to motorists who are texting if their vehicle is wandering on the road, she said.
Last weekend, Wimberly worked seven fatalities in Dillon, Marlboro and Lexington counties. In five of the accidents, not buckling up was a factor, she said.
Area growth is fueling the traffic problem. Some 712,000 people call Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties home. Each month, roughly 1,230 people move here, which gives the area the third-highest growth rate on the Atlantic Coast, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released Thursday.
Since 2000, the area's population has grown by more than 163,000, the census bureau reports.
Officials have responded to the increased demand on roads with new construction and improvements. Earlier this month, it was announced that more than $30 million had been budgeted in 2018 and 2019 toward I-526 improvements, including a redesigned interchange with I-26, one of the area's major traffic choke points.
The Charleston Area Transportation Study Policy Committee approved the I-526 project and other road work for inclusion in the Transportation Improvement Plan for 2014-19. The plan is a blueprint for spending federal dollars.
The I-526 effort should improve traffic flow where the interstate meets International Boulevard in North Charleston. It will also make travel smoother at the West Ashley end of I-526 at U.S. Highway 17 and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard.
CHATS designated $23 million for a Clements Ferry Road widening project and about $5 million for improvements to College Park Road.
Dangerous roads and drivers
South Carolina has the most dangerous highways in the country, according to carinsurancecomparison.com. Factors in the rating included interstate speeding fatalities per mile, drivers not buckling up and aging bridges.
The state also has the second-worst drivers. Only North Dakota and Montana had a higher percentage of fatalities involving alcohol than South Carolina in 2012. If not for Florida, the Palmetto State would have the most careless drivers in the country, according to the study.
The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, failure to obey traffic signals and use seat belts, drunk driving, number of traffic tickets and careless driving were used to tally the best and worst states. The report is based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Highway Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the organization says.
Simple changes in driver behavior can make a big difference, Wimberly said.
They include slowing down, preparing for exits, avoiding unnecessary lane changes and paying attention to the road, she said.
"Our lives are so busy with phones, social media and other things that we are taking our eyes off the road and our hands off the steering wheel," she said.
If drivers are involved in an accident without injuries, moving the cars off the road is allowed. That can greatly improve traffic flow, she said.
The Highway Patrol can determine the cause of an accident even if the vehicles are not in their original position, she said.
The state DOT is developing a 30-year plan for sections of six interstate routes in seven counties. In Charleston and Berkeley counties, I-26 from Exit 194 at Jedburg Road to Exit 221 at U.S. 17 is included in the effort. The goal is a strategy to address existing and anticipated traffic volume and associated congestion. The proposal would be an amendment to the State Transportation Improvement Plan for highway spending.
The State Infrastructure Bank has approved $15 million to widen two miles of I-26 to six lanes from near Summerville to Jedburg. A new interchange will be built at Sheep Island Road for port shipping business.
A different solution
Some argue that road construction is not necessarily the answer to the area's traffic woes. Instead, the region needs more mass transit. Less than 1 percent of South Carolina workers use public transit, and about 80 percent of those who drive to their jobs are alone in their vehicle, officials said.
"In short, the region has a significant transportation problem and the historic solution of mere road widening is both exorbitant and potentially infeasible," says a report prepared by Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments consultant Davis & Floyd.
A $1 million federally funded study is evaluating mass transit options for the I-26 corridor in the Charleston area. Some of those options include a commuter train, ferry boats, monorails and aerial tramways.
South Carolina Highway Patrol Senior Trooper Hannah Wimberly patrols Interstate 26.×
West-bound traffic on Interstate 26 was backed up to the Interstate 526 interchange after a truck turned over and lost its load in 2007. West bound traffic had to use the emergency lane to pass by the accident and side roads such as Rivers Ave came to a standstill too.×
Traffic backs up on Interstate 26 East bound near the rest stop at College Park Road after a concrete truck rolled onto a car at the entrance ramp for the rest stop in 2008.×