Originally created 09/17/06

Hundreds have died on stretch of Interstate 20



For truck driver Bob Wickes, no road is safe. The Maryland resident said he drives Interstate 20 through Augusta about twice a month on his way to Charleston Air Force Base.

"Well, Columbia stinks," Mr. Wickes said as he filled the two massive tanks on the sides of his rig with diesel at the Pilot station on River Watch Parkway, "but the whole highway is dangerous. It doesn't matter where you are."

As the summer heat and humidity subside and football season gears up, many people across the area will be taking I-20 on their way to games in Athens, Ga., Atlanta and Columbia.

Some might never return.

According to statistics provided by the Georgia and South Carolina departments of Transportation, in the past six years, 201 people have lost their lives in the 218 miles between Atlanta and Columbia. Counties with only a few miles of highway can still make for dangerous driving.

With only 2,077 people, Taliaferro is the smallest county in Georgia based on population. It contains only 10 miles of I-20, but it has seen 15 fatalities from 2000 to 2005. It has the dubious honor of being second only to DeKalb County, which has a population of more than 677,000 people, in the number of traffic deaths per mile. From marker 150 to 151, near the Crawfordville exit, nine people lost their lives, making that stretch the most deadly on I-20 between Atlanta and Columbia.

Georgia State Patrol post commander Sgt. Derick Durden is responsible for patrolling I-20 in Taliaferro County. He said speeds topping 100 mph and wet roads create much of the havoc there.

"We actually work wrecks all up and down that stretch when it's raining," he said. "About the only thing we can attribute that to is there may be water on the roadway and combine that with the speed, and people don't tend to want to slow down when it's raining. They still want to run 100 miles an hour or so."

Taliaferro County Coroner Milton Alexander agreed. He said hydroplaning is a big problem.

"There might be a low spot in the highway there, and when people get to it, they speed and probably hydroplane," he said. "You have a lot of speeding done out there on I-20, and I think that contributes to a lot of accidents, too. Especially coming through Taliaferro County."

Richmond County finishes out the top three with eight fatalities in the past five years. With a little more than six miles of highway, this busy section averages 1.28 fatalities per mile - all but one in dry conditions.

Maj. Richard Weaver of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office said the construction at Crane's Creek has caused a short uptick in the number of wrecks in 2006. In April, 60-year-old Patricia Cary, of Columbia, was killed when she lost control of her car, ran into a concrete barrier and hit a tractor trailer.

Maj. Weaver said accidents have been sporadic in years past. Georgia DOT statistics show there were no fatal wrecks on the highway in Richmond County in 2004 or 2005.

"I would say it's safe when you consider, but we don't have that much of I-20," Maj. Weaver said.

Columbia County contains about 17 miles of I-20 and has had 18 fatal wrecks in the six-year time frame. Sgt. Tim Perry of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office has patrolled the road for the last six years. He said the two-mile stretch between the Thomson and Appling/Harlem exits is a particularly dangerous spot.

"Some reason, every time it rains we have an accident there and I don't know why," he said. "If it rains, we know we are going to get one there, and they're usually pretty bad."

According to Sgt. Perry, the Georgia Department of Transportation has examined the site for drainage issues but found none.

Drivers regularly travel upwards of 100 mph in the section, despite the 70 mph speed limit.

"You can go out there and most of the time catch people driving 80 and above, a lot of times over 100," Sgt. Perry said. "It's desolate out there, no exits no nothing. People just pick up a lot of speed there."

Regular trips on I-20 have taught Mr. Wickes that speed is the key to highway fatalities.

He said he knows the danger inherent in his job and that most of the time all he can do is drive as safely as possible. He estimates that he sees at least one fatal crash a week, and after 20 years on the road without causing an accident, he said it has a lot to do with laying off the pedal.

"You see a lot of accidents - all different types," he said. "Usually, that's just driver inattention and speed."

His work takes him through most of the counties listed, and he said a lack of respect for the road, and especially for 18-wheelers, leads to many fatalities.

"Cars have no respect for something that weighs 80,000 pounds," he said. "I'm just doing the speed limit and I'm in everybody's way."

Mr. Wickes said he really notices that drivers pick up speed across the Savannah River in Aiken County.

There is little more than 84 miles of I-20 from Augusta to Columbia. Aiken makes up about 37 miles of that stretch. The county ranks 11th for the number of deaths per mile but tops the list in fatalities with 27.

Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said a section between mile markers 10 and 15 has had a number of fatal wrecks because of wet weather.

"Between that area the lanes were holding water, and we had several wrecks that were very similar," Mr. Carlton said.

Since then, the South Carolina DOT has repaired the section and there have been no more fatal wrecks. Mr. Carlton attributes most of the accidents on I-20 in Aiken to speed, alcohol and sleepy drivers.

So what can drivers do to keep safe?

Officials agree that speed and wet weather make for a dangerous combination on the highway. Drivers should be prepared to drive more defensively and scale back their speed when confronted with rain or snow, said Sgt. Perry. They should also give themselves extra space between their car and the one in front.

Mr. Carlton suggests proper rest is essential to staying attentive on the road.

Don Williams, a truck driver with Werner Enterprises Inc., has a different approach. He agrees that speed and dozing drivers are a big factor in fatal wrecks, but he has a solution to help cut back on the number of fatalities.

"I think everybody ought to take a ride in a truck before they drive their car so they will know the dangers of it," Mr. Williams said.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

Total Interstate 20 fatalities from Atlanta to Columbia - 2000 to 2005.

Georgia S. Carolina
Miles of I-20 13484.4
Fatalities 131 70

Sources: Georgia Department of Transportation, South Carolina Department of Transportation