Aiken wreck deaths attributed to drinking, not wearing seatbelts

Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton can almost write his report on the way to a fatal traffic crash before he even knows the details. They’re just that predictable, he says.

“The majority are single-vehicle crashes that involve drugs and alcohol and no seatbelts,” Carlton said.

Statistics from this year’s 17 vehicle and pedestrian fatalities support that statement.

Out of the 15 traffic incidents, seven involved only one vehicle and only two people involved were wearing seatbelts. Speeding or drunken driving were suspected in eight crashes.

Another common factor is that most of the fatal crashes occur on secondary roads. South Carolina Highway Pa­trol Lance Cpl. Judd Jones the trend carries across the state.

“A lot of different things play into that,” he said. “When you look at your secondary roads, you don’t have a lot of shoulder or margin for error.”

A 2011 AAA Carolinas study on 2009’s traffic deaths found that rural roads are the most deadly for motorists.

Despite South Carolina’s reputation for having less than desirable roads, Jones said the road surface was not a contributing factor in any of this year’s crashes.

Inattention, he said, was a main factor that caused drivers to leave the road and crash.

A 2012 study conducted by carinsurancecomparison.com found South Carolina was the state with the “most dangerous” highways. That might not be surprising to those familiar with the state’s traffic law history.

South Carolina has more lenient helmet laws than its neighbors and was the last state to pass tougher legislation on drunken driving and require the use of seatbelts.

The No. 1 cause of crashes statewide is alcohol, according to Jones.

Though seatbelt use has increased to 90.7 percent statewide, he said the number of unbuckled drivers who are still dying is troubling.

“We’re not saying all would, but a lot of people would still be here today if they had taken the time to put their seatbelts on,” he said.

Traffic deaths have been dropping across Aiken County for years. Authorities hope to see another drop, but deaths are up by two compared with this time last year.

According to the coroner’s office, the county had 35 fatalities in 2010, 33 in 2011, 21 in 2012, and 17 so far this year.

Aiken County has surpassed Richmond County’s traffic fatality count by 10, but Aiken County is also three times larger.

Carlton said he remembers a time when the office was handling about 50 cases a year. He said some improvements to roads, including the addition of a cable between eastbound and westbound Interstate 20, have been a factor in reducing traffic fatalities.

Since 1989, the coroner’s office has been painting white crosses on roads at the sites of fatal wrecks to memorialize the victims and warn other drivers. The tradition was started by Coroner Sue Townsend.

“A lot of times if we don’t paint the crosses within a day or two families will call us and ask us why,” Carlton said. “I think the folks in Aiken County are very aware of our program and realize it’s a reminder to Aiken County citizens that they need to consider their driving habits.”

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