AIKEN - Drivers might want to think twice before flaunting South Carolina's speed limits.
Aiken County has two new state troopers assigned to patrol its roads, part of the first new batch of officers in two years.
And in South Carolina, officials say, getting people to drive smarter could be key to dropping the state's traffic-fatality rate, which is among the highest in the nation.
Though the sight of more troopers could scare drivers into behaving, the highway patrol's ranks have dwindled in a time of tight finances.
An influx of cash in the South Carolina Highway Patrol's budget is changing that, said Sid Gaulden, a spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety.
The highway patrol recently graduated 28 troopers - the first new class of officers since 2003.
An additional 70 will come, including up to 30 set to graduate in November, Mr. Gaulden said.
"Our trooper strength has been dwindling over the last several years, there's no doubt about that," he said.
And during the past few years, South Carolina's highways have been deadly.
As of Wednesday, 784 people have been killed in 705 crashes on South Carolina highways this year.
That's 46 more fatal crashes than in the same period last year, and 64 more deaths.
A study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that South Carolina has the highest percentage of speeding-related deaths in the country, with nearly half of all deadly crashes in the state from 1983 to 2002 involving speeding.
The agency's data also shows that 463 fatalities in South Carolina - 45 percent of all deaths - were in speed-related crashes.
Judie Stone, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group that urges lawmakers to enact tougher traffic laws, said more officers on the road leads to safer driving.
Traffic units get shortchanged in funding because of the priority given to security, she said.
"It's very clear that traffic safety is being given less emphasis in many places, and that's due to a lack of personnel," Ms. Stone said.
Of the 28 troopers who graduated in Columbia earlier this month, two were assigned to the Aiken post.
Mr. Gaulden said that in South Carolina, there are now 784 highway troopers, 19 of them in Aiken County.
Because those troopers cover nonfatal collisions and nearly every deadly wreck in the state, Mr. Gaulden said, other areas of traffic control, such as nabbing speeders or reckless drivers, can be neglected.
But he said that hiring more troopers isn't the only answer to cutting down on the state's fatality rates.
Tougher laws - such as making it a primary offense not to wear a seat belt - will also help.
That law goes into effect Dec. 9, Mr. Gaulden said, and the highway patrol is urging drivers to wear the restraints to avoid getting a $25 ticket.
Forty to 60 people could be saved a year by seat belts, he said.
"Yes, the mandatory seat belt should save lives," Mr. Gaulden said.
Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Motor vehicle traffic crashes cost South Carolina $3.3 billion, according to the agency, which used 2000 data.
Year State Aiken
2004 1,046 39
2003 969 29
2002 1,053 32
2001 1,060 48
2000 1,065 20
Source: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration
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