Originally created 07/04/99

Traffic deaths worry Aiken County



AIKEN -- With the Interstate 20 accident last weekend that claimed five lives, Aiken County surpassed the 1997 death toll on its roads even before the year was half over.

The number of white crosses popping up on the roadways is becoming more of a black eye for a county trying desperately to reduce last year's record number of fatalities.

But it could also mean more grant money to address the problem, possibly helping local law enforcement agencies that suffer from manpower shortages.

Based on last year's devastating death toll -- 50 fatalities, a figure that more than doubled the 22 in 1997 -- the state's Department of Public Safety awarded Aiken County $133,000 to create a unit aimed at addressing accidents involving alcohol.

The sheriff's office used the money for three new positions and to start a DUI Task Force that patrols the roadways, tickets speeders, arrests drunken drivers and speaks to local community groups about traffic safety.

As it turned out, Aiken County was one of the 10 counties in the state with the highest number of DUI-related crashes and fatalities last year. That data made the county eligible for state and federal grant money.

Success for the DUI Task Force will be measured when crashes and accident deaths come down, officials say. Education and stepped-up enforcement often deter drivers from breaking the law, according to Theresa Wilson, safety and grants coordinator for the state's Department of Public Safety.

The task force is doing its part to stop the death toll. Between February and May, the DUI Task Force has made 17 arrests for drunken driving, ticketed 261 speeders and given 19 presentations to various groups on traffic safety.

But an examination of fatalities this year suggests that if Aiken County continues at this rate, it could be headed for a repeat of last year, and that doesn't fare well for some local officials.

Coroner Sue Townsend, who needed three spray cans to paint white crosses on I-20 on June 27, is running out of answers.

"It makes me tired," she said. "Maybe we should put billboards on the welcome sign that read, `Travel at your own risk."'

She knows, though, that the problem is not confined to Aiken County. South Carolina recorded 1,001 deaths last year, reaching four digits for the first time in a decade and jumping 11 percent from 903 deaths in 1997.

"We were one of the worst states in the union last year, and it looks like we're trying to hold our record. Aiken County is definitely doing its part," Mrs. Townsend said.

Last week's deadly collision -- which brought 1999's death toll to 23 so far -- came after an elderly Florida woman crossed the median of I-20 and slammed head-on into a vehicle carrying three construction workers from Jonesboro, Ga.

The three men, the Florida woman and her husband were all killed. The coroner has been unable to determine what caused the woman to cross the median.

In another deadly collision that marked a bad opening to the year, teen-ager Shayna Lively was intoxicated when she drove the wrong way down I-20 on Jan. 11 and killed a father and his two young daughters.

Mrs. Townsend suggests the higher speed limits may play a part in more violent and deadly accidents. She also knows that some counties have added cement railings in the median that could have stopped the Florida woman from swerving across I-20 into oncoming traffic.

Otherwise, she is fresh out of answers.

"How do we stop the deaths on our highways?" she asked. "I'm open for suggestions."

Greg Rickabaugh covers crime for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.