Officers focus on traffic violations

AIKEN --- It's a tale of two departments with one objective -- to stem the number of traffic fatalities in their cities. One has new resources to combat the problem, and the other is seeking help as it struggles with the issue.

The Aiken Department of Public Safety's two new traffic officers are difficult to miss on the road as they patrol the streets in two new black Dodge Chargers, the roofs outfitted with flashing lights and the sides of the cars emblazoned with the department's logo. Cpl. Chris Carter and Officer Jason Griffin started last month. They are the only officers in the department whose sole responsibilities are traffic enforcement and education.

"Basically, my job and Officer Griffin's job is to try to reduce fatalities and wrecks in the city of Aiken," Cpl. Carter said. In 2007, there were six traffic fatalities within the city limits -- the highest number ever. "That's unheard of in the city of Aiken."

In response to the rising number of highway fatalities and collisions, the city applied for and received a grant from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. The grant -- $143,484 for the first year -- helps pay for the two officers' salaries, their equipment and training. The city must match 20 percent of the cost.

Cpl. Carter stresses that their goal is not to write more tickets; it's to educate drivers about the dangers of not wearing a seat belt, drinking and driving, and speeding.

The corporal said the response from the public has been positive.

"It's good experience for me to be able to get out in the community and talk to people and show that we're not just ticket writers," he said. "We're trying to enforce and educate at the same time."

Just a few miles from Aiken down U.S. Highway 1, Chief David Paul Smith, of the Burnettown Police Department, applied for the same grant in the hopes of adding traffic officers to the department's two-man operation. He's still waiting to hear something.

"Burnettown is a town that has no tax base, and we survive off of franchise fees," he said. "That's why we only have two full-time officers."

That makes it difficult to juggle case files, accidents, speed prevention and regular patrol duties, especially in an area that has a high number of traffic fatalities. In 2007, 13 of Aiken County's 46 highway fatalities occurred in Chief Smith's jurisdiction, which includes Burnettown and three miles outside the town limits. So far this year, five of the county's seven fatal crashes have occurred in the area.

Chief Smith said he believes the fatality rate in the area can be reduced by aggressively patrolling certain areas, such as U.S. 1 and Sudlow Lake Road.

"I am proposing that plan to the state to try to give me some traffic officers to assist in doing that," he said. "I can only do so much without some more help."

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

Aiken Department of Public Safety traffic officers issued 896 citations in the first month of enforcement:

CITATION TYPE..............NUMBER

Warnings..............264

Speeding..............226

Seat belt violations..............152

Driving under suspension..............27

Child restraint violations..............18

Uninsured vehicles..............12

No driver's license..............6

Drug violations..............5

Driving under the influence..............3

Firearm violation..............1

Other..............128

Source: Aiken Department of Public Safety