Scenic Highway 61 (copy)

Commuters travel under the scenic Highway 61 tree canopies in Dorchester County Wednesday, September 11, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

There are few places that evoke a sense of the Lowcountry more than S.C. Highway 61, a beloved National Scenic Byway that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Adorned with a beautiful canopy of grand oaks, the road sweeps past historic plantations along the Ashley River.

But the two-lane highway also can make drivers grip their steering wheels tightly knowing that it’s one of the state’s deadliest roads.

The latter isn’t the road’s fault. Most of it is, or will be, 12 feet wide. (Most passenger vehicles are only about half that wide.) Of course, the road should be made safer, but the S.C. Department of Transportation needs to put as much emphasis on improving drivers as it puts on improving the road as it upgrades the Dorchester County part of it.

When the heavily traveled Charleston County stretch north of Bees Ferry Road was recently repaved, rumble strips were added, along with 2-foot shoulders. The changes were aesthetically almost unnoticeable. Yes, 2 feet is a narrow margin of error — about two tire widths — but the rumble strips give drivers a wake-up call and a few seconds to steer back into their lane, rather than being jerked off the road into a tree or overcorrecting and veering into oncoming traffic.

So the DOT’s plan to add 4-foot paved shoulders along the section from just south of Middleton Place to Cooks Crossroads is excessive.

Worse, one alternative for a 1.4-mile section running past Middleton Place calls for the removal of 283 trees, including about 20 oaks, and a 20-foot “clear zone.” But the plantation side of the road is already mostly grassy, with only a few trees near the road.

A second alternative calls for the same 4-foot shoulders with a 12-foot clear zone and the removal of 58 trees. While that would mean the loss of fewer trees, why aren’t 2-foot shoulders being  considered    ? In tandem with rumble strips, they seem to be working in Charleston County.

The DOT’s plan does have some good suggestions. For instance, rumble strips would be added to the centerline and the shoulders along the entire stretch, as well as 6-inch high reflectors along the edges of the pavement, all of which should help keep drivers in lanes and detract little from the scenery. And, thankfully, most of the trees targeted are species other than live oaks.

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The DOT should consider putting up signs, perhaps near Magnolia Plantation on the south side and Cooks Crossroads on the north, cautioning drivers to stick to the 55 mph speed limit. Though DOT won’t consider lowering the speed limit, as we have suggested in the past, that doesn’t mean it can’t encourage drivers not to exceed 45 or 50 mph. Traffic is already bumper-to-bumper during peak commute times.

It’s clear that something must be done to improve safety on the highway. According to the S.C. Department of Public Safety, 17 people have died in accidents along Highway 61 in Dorchester County over the past decade, 18 in Charleston County. We can do better, but when you’re talking about 4-foot shoulders, which traffic engineers estimate would reduce fatalities by less than one per year, you also have to consider whether those broad shoulders could be an invitation for unsafe passing or even higher speeds. And you might wonder, why not a bike lane?

You can learn more about the plans at the first public airing of proposals from 5-7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Ashley Ridge High School near Summerville.

Clearly something must be done to improve safety along the beautiful but dangerous road, but expanding its overall width by 8 feet is unnecessary. It also would destroy too many of the trees that make the highway so unique.

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