Wade Spees // The Post and Courier
Last February, a Honda carrying five people left the road and slammed into a tree (background, just behind red car), peeling it in two. Ismael Hill, 27, and Kimone Walters, 22, died, and three others were injured. The wreck near mile marker 189 was among a cluster of fatal accidents in the area.
The Interstate 26 death zone northwest of Summerville remains a place of broken glass and heartbreak, despite nationwide attention and a statewide awareness campaign that yielded more than a thousand traffic tickets.
During the past year, the four-lane section between Jedburg and Interstate 95 had nine fatal wrecks, about the same number as in previous years.
The stretch through Ridgeville continues to be particularly deadly with more than 20 fatal wrecks in the past decade, including one in December in which a Honda veered into the median, struck a tree and split in half. Five people were thrown from the car; two died.
State highway engineers have been studying this zone of carnage and have two projects in the works that might help:
--On the 10-mile concrete stretch near Harleyville, crews will epoxy pavement markers on the left edge of the fast lanes. Drivers who veer off these lanes toward the center median will hear loud bumping noises similar to rumble strips, said Tony Sheppard, director of Traffic Engineering for the S.C. Department of Transportation. Work is expected to begin soon and cost about $96,000.
--Near Ridgeville on a 16-mile stretch paved with asphalt, workers will scrape off an existing layer that's falling apart and put down a new surface. Crews also will build a 4-foot-wide shoulder in the median and add rumble strips to alert drifting drivers.
The addition of this wider shoulder could be helpful in reducing wrecks. The existing shoulder is just a foot or two in spots, leaving drivers with little margin of error if they stray off the road.
Work on the resurfacing and shoulder project could begin later this year, with the timing dependent on weather and the bidding process, Sheppard said.
Last year, 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," followed with a national report highlighting the dangers of I-26, and in August, state troopers announced 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."
Inattention, drinking and bad driving habits, such as riding someone's bumper or failing to signal a lane shift, are what's causing many of the wrecks, S.C. Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Bob Beres said. "The problem is not the roadway," he said. "It's people on the roadway not doing what they're supposed to be doing."
The high number of fatalities on I-26 as it flows to and from Charleston is remarkable because this section seems so benign. The highway here is relatively straight and passes through swamps, fields and forests.
But the highway also has thick stands of trees in the median and steep shoulders on either side. The section of interstate also has few guardrails or guard wires. Vehicles that run off the road often roll over or plow into the trees.
Beres said that a moment of inattention, whether it's to answer a cellphone call or something else, can lead to disaster. He said he's seen people on I-26 trying to eat cereal and read while they drive.
"Everything in life has a beginning and an end, but when you push the envelope, the end comes a lot quicker."
Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554.