Charleston County roads were the deadliest in South Carolina for bicyclists and pedestrians between 2011 and 2015. And that’s saying a lot in a state that ranks near the top nationwide for bicyclists and pedestrians killed by car drivers.
South Carolina also ranked third in 2016 for the number of overall traffic fatalities per capita, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Only Alabama and Mississippi roads were deadlier.
To better protect all road users — both motorized and non-motorized — the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments has formed a committee to help identify and implement safety measures. It’s a needed effort, but its conclusions will not likely be surprising.
Some of the problems causing unsafe roads — and the solutions — are already apparent.
Pedestrian fatalities, which are far more common than bicyclist deaths, generally happen on high-speed roads at night and outside of safety features like crosswalks. Motorist deaths are also highest on major arteries, which tend to have more lanes and higher speeds alongside the complexities of an urban environment.
Some roads are deadlier than others. At least four of the pedestrian deaths in the area so far this year happened on or within a block of Ashley Phosphate Road, for example.
The intersection of Ashley Phosphate and I-26 was also by far the worst spot in the region for car wrecks between 2011 and 2015, according to DOT data. It averaged a wreck every three days.
It’s not hard to see why. Ashley Phosphate Road is at least six lanes wide for most of its 4.3-mile length. Cars travel well over the posted speed limits ranging from 40 to 50 mph, which creates a particularly dangerous environment when drivers enter and exit commercial parking lots and residential side streets.
And while there are sidewalks on both sides of Ashley Phosphate, only 10 crosswalks offer a relatively safe path for pedestrians trying to cross the road. That means walkers can either choose a detour of a half-mile or more or risk crossing traffic.
If state Department of Transportation officials lowered the speed limit and added more crosswalks on Ashley Phosphate, lives would be saved. In fact, based on this year’s numbers, making that one road safer could cut down on the tri-county region’s pedestrian fatalities by as much as 20 percent.
Car wrecks would plummet as well.
It’s absurd that improvements haven’t already been implemented, and not just on Ashley Phosphate but other problem roads throughout the region. But DOT guidelines focus primarily on moving the maximum number of cars with the maximum possible efficiency. Safety is just one of several factors taken into consideration, and pedestrian and bicyclist accommodations are an afterthought in too many cases.
Safety, however, is inherently more important than anything else when designing a transportation network, and it should be the top priority. After all, spending an extra minute or two in traffic is a frustrating inconvenience. Dying in the street is a tremendous tragedy.
The COG committee will take a deeper dive into the region’s problem spots and come up with tailored solutions to make it safer to get around on foot, by bike, in a car or on a bus. That kind of detail and data will help drive needed improvements.
In the meantime, there are some obvious ways to make roads safer. Slow down speeding cars and take care of people on two feet and two wheels.