I-26 'death zones' targeted

A roadside memorial sits along the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 on March 7. While the state soon will begin selling approved roadside memorials, two College of Charleston sociologists say they expect homemade memorials will continue to be made.

Hoping to stem the carnage in Interstate 26's "death zones," the state Highway Patrol on Monday will begin an unprecedented traffic crackdown, with a special squad of troopers dedicated to nabbing speeders and other reckless drivers on key stretches of I-26 north of Charleston.

State troopers promise this operation will be unlike others, with no set timetable for ending the enforcement effort, little or no tolerance for even minor speeding violations and a dramatic increase in the number of troopers patrolling in unmarked cars.

"You will be seeing a large contingent of blue lights lit on I-26," said

Cpl. Paul Brouthers of the Highway Patrol. "This is all being done with the goal of preserving lives."

The operation comes after a Post and Courier Watchdog analysis earlier this year showed that parts of I-26 around Ridgeville and Harleyville had three times more fatalities per mile than others. The analysis also prompted a national CBS News report on the issue.

Brouthers said officials long have known about the highway's collision and fatality patterns but plan to release new traffic statistics in a Monday news conference.

He said the crackdown will focus on I-26 from Ashley Phosphate to I-95 and on sections of I-26 north of I-95 to Columbia. Troopers who normally patrol in marked cars will switch to unmarked Impalas. Berkeley and Dorchester county deputies also will participate.

Unlike DUI and seat-belt crackdowns, this operation has no set end-date. "We're doing it until further notice, until our commanders decide we've reduced fatal collisions, overall conditions and speeding," Brouthers said. The goal: Give this deceptively dangerous stretch of I-26 a reputation as a risky place to speed or be distracted.

A Post and Courier Watchdog analysis in March found that mile per mile, the lonely four-lane section around Ridgeville has claimed more lives than any other part of this important South Carolina highway -- about three fatal wrecks per mile during the decade. That's twice the rate of much more heavily traveled sections in North Charleston.

The analysis also revealed that many fatalities in the Ridgeville death zone happened when vehicles slammed into trees in the median or overturned on the highway's sloping embankments. Most fatal wrecks in the Ridgeville death zone -- about two-thirds -- happened at night or early in the morning.

"We see that most of the fatal collisions are single-car wrecks," Brouthers said. Some crashes happened when people relaxed and fell asleep at the wheel, or became distracted and veered off the road.

Speeds on I-26 range from 65 mph north of Ashley Phosphate to Summerville to 70 mph, as the highway goes from six lanes to four. Motorists often set their cruise controls a few miles above the speed limit, thinking the buffer will help them escape a traffic stop. Brouthers said motorists on I-26 shouldn't count on that anymore. "Don't do it beginning Monday," he said.

Brouthers has been to countless wrecks during his 27 years as a state trooper and seen how people suffered because they were simply driving too fast or not paying attention. "When someone is killed on a highway, everyone around them sufferers and grieves," he said. "So we're going to remain out there until we see a positive impact."