With 16 fatal wrecks, Aiken County tops the list as the most deadly county in the more-than-200-mile stretch of Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Columbia.
From 2006 to 2010, 17 people died in the 37 miles through Aiken County. Columbia and Richmond counties are safer bets.
Both counties fall in the bottom half of the list. Richmond County has experienced five deadly accidents in the past five years in its 6.3-mile stretch.
“I think speed and the short span are the main factors in the lower number of accidents,” Richmond County sheriff’s Maj. Richard Weaver said of the area with a 55 mph speed limit. The surrounding counties have higher speed limits.
Pinpointing the exact reason why Aiken County tops the list isn’t easy.
A possible explanation is in its size. In addition to having the highest number of deadly crashes, Aiken County is also the largest county, in area, between Atlanta and Columbia.
For the size of the county, Lance Cpl. Judd Jones of the South Carolina Highway Patrol said the number of fatalities on this section of I-20 isn’t too alarming.
“More of our fatalities in Aiken County are occurring on secondary roads instead of the interstate,” he said.
Two other large South Carolina counties – Richland and Lexington – also fall in the top five for the highest number of deadly crashes.
If judged by mileage, DeKalb and Warren counties in Georgia could top the list.
DeKalb County, which has seen 13 fatal incidents in the five-year span, averages 0.77 fatalities per mile. Warren County, situated between McDuffie and Taliaferro counties, averages 0.93 fatalities per mile.
“There is a tremendous problem (in Warren County) and we’re aware of it,” said Lt. Donnie Smith, assistant commander of the Georgia State Patrol’s Troop E.
Smith attributed that problem to several theories. The “boring landscape” in the rural area tempts drivers to brave texting and talking on their cellphones.
The area is also 45 to 50 minutes between Augusta and Madison, both cities with lots of restaurants. It gives travelers just long enough to get sleepy after filling their bellies, Smith said. It’s also one of the first counties on the stretch from the state line that does not have a restraint cable dividing the highway.
“Most of our fatal accidents are crossover accidents,” he said.
THE DUI FACTOR
Driving under the influence and seat belt usage could also play a part in the high number in Aiken County.
“In South Carolina, the No. 1 cause of fatalities on our roadways is alcohol-related crashes,” Jones said.
In five years, 43 percent of the fatal crashes in the 85 miles between the state line and Columbia are attributed to driving under the influence, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. On the Georgia side, 11 percent of fatal incidents in the 125-mile span are attributed to driving under the influence.
The state average stands at 28 percent, according to 2008 data from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, considered to be the lowest average in the Southeast region. South Carolina had the highest.
Across South Carolina, 49 percent of fatalities list DUI as a contributing factor, Jones said.
LOSS OF CONTROL
In Georgia, the leading cause of crashes on I-20 – around 40 percent – is attributed to the driver losing control followed by following too closely at 10 percent.
Although seat belt usage is now estimated to be at 85 percent in South Carolina, it wasn’t always high for the state.
Troopers have been working diligently to improve the percentage since 2006 data showed only about 41 percent of people in the state were buckling up.
Jones pointed to several recent deaths on the interstate as an example. Since 2007, 60 percent of those killed in fatal crashes in Aiken County were not wearing seat belts.
“We know it might not have definitely saved their lives, but their chances of survival would have been greater,” he said.
Speed generally isn’t a major problem in most counties.
“We’ve caught cars in the 100s before, but it’s not an issue we see a lot of,” Jones said.
Weaver said only occasionally does he see tickets on the interstate for excessive speeds, which he described as anything more than 80 mph.