State Transportation engineers and surveyors are gathering data for possible safety upgrades on Interstate 26 through the Ridgeville "Death Zone."

A recent Post and Courier Watchdog report showed some stretches of I-26 in and around Ridgeville and Harleyville had three times more fatalities per mile than other sections.

"It wasn't any surprise to me," Brett Harrelson, state safety engineer, said of the data. "We were seeing the same spikes you were seeing."

Harrelson said that the department's planners began gathering wreck data last fall and are doing surveys on 20 to 30 miles on I-26 through Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

Among other things, surveyors are measuring slopes next to the highway, the width of the highway's asphalt shoulders and the proximity of trees to the pavement. Harrelson said he hopes the survey will be done next month. "Until we get that data, we don't know our options," he said.

Northwest of Summerville, I-26 turns into a four-lane divided highway that shoots through swamps, pine forests and farms.

Despite its rural views, this stretch is the deadliest on I-26. Mile per mile, it has more fatalities than sections through the much more urban areas of North Charleston and Columbia, even though it has one-third the traffic, a Watchdog analysis showed.

Many fatal crashes involved roll-overs and wrecks with trees, and unlike many other stretches on I-26, the Ridgeville zone has no cable barriers that could help keep out-of-control motorists from slamming into trees or going into steep ditches.

Tony Leverett witnessed one of these fatal wrecks.

On Easter Sunday in 2008, Leverett was behind a car driven by Rachel Lynn Bucci, 18, when Bucci's car suddenly veered left.

"As soon as she hit the edge of the pavement, she took off. It was very violent." Bucci died instantly when her car hit a tree. She was a freshman at Coastal Carolina University majoring in biology.

Leverett said the accident haunted him, and he began his own investigation, traveling that section of I-26 and similarly designed parts of I-95.

"I noticed the shoulders were different," he said. In these areas, the pavement has different levels, perhaps because of previous repaving jobs. It creates a feeling similar to when you drive from a new patch of pavement onto an area that has been scraped before repaving, he said. "When you get off the road, your tires roll off from one pavement to the other, and it tends to swing you off."

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554.