By Joe Croughwell, Kiawah Island Director of Safety & Paul Roberts, Chairman, Kiawah Island Community Association Board of Directors
Last year the Post and Courier carried an article reporting on a study prepared by a non-profit Washington D.C. transportation research group, T.R.I.P., showing that two of the major routes on Johns Island, Bohicket/Main/Betsy Kerrison and River Road, were among the most dangerous in the state. Accident data from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety found that from 2003 through 2006, there were 22 fatalities on Johns Island roads. Of these, nine of the victims were residents of Johns Island, eight were from Charleston, and the remaining five were from other communities in the region. In addition to the 22 dead, 11 were seriously injured. These accidents can be directly attributed to the engineering, congestion and condition of the roads themselves. Unfortunately, limitations in the data available from the Department of Public Safety at the time of the original article made it impossible to know where the accidents occurred or what caused them.
However, new data on accidents in 2007 and 2008 are now available from the Department of Public Safety. This new data, reported by a police officer on the scene, are quite detailed. The 1023 observations of automobile accidents on Johns Island and its approaches from the past two years answers several of the most frequently asked questions concerning Johns Island traffic safety: where did these accidents occur? When? Why?
Note that the island had approximately 15,000 residents in 2007 and 2008, yet more than 50,000 vehicle trips were recorded on the island each day. By 2030, the volumes crossing the Stono Bridge alone are forecast to reach 60,000 vehicles per day. This is clearly a recipe for disaster. With this growth in traffic, it is not surprising that these grim statistics have continued, and the need to understand the accidents, what caused them, and what can be done to improve this situation has become imperative.
In the two-year period covered by the new data, there were 1023 recorded accidents, 343 of which led to a total of 507 injuries. Most importantly, there were 14 deaths. The overall accident rate on Johns Island is just short of 10 accidents per week. Eighty-seven percent of the accidents take place on four roads: Maybank, Main, River and Bohicket. Maybank Highway and Main Road had more accidents and more injuries than the other roads, but River Road had the most deaths. The four deaths on River Road can be attributed to its narrow travel lanes, sharp curves, lack of shoulders, and the fact that the shoulders are overgrown with century-old live oaks growing at the edge of the pavement.
Most of the accidents and deaths took place on dry pavement, in clear weather, and during the daylight hours, though darkness seems to play a slightly larger role at dawn/dusk/dark. The most frequently cited cause of accidents is that the driver was distracted or inattentive. Surprisingly, in this database the category “exceeded speed limit” is not even in the top ten of the list of probable causes of accidents on Johns Island. In fact, it does not appear until number 15 on the list, below a number of other common probable causes.
A not too remarkable fact that comes out of the data is that trees play a major role in half of the accidents involved when there is a death. This is due to the nature of the tree-lined roads on Johns Island. In fact, “hitting a tree” comprised 89 of the accidents, 58 of the injuries and 7 of the 14 recorded deaths. The problem is obvious. The roads on Johns Island have the same antiquated design standards they had when they were upgraded from the two-lane gravel roads built at the turn of the last century. Traffic volumes — already heavy on these beautiful tree-canopied roads — continue to increase as the area grows. If something unexpected happens, there is no place to go: the vehicle inevitably hits one of the roadside trees. The greater the traffic density, the more likely there is to be an accident and the higher the death and injury rates. The irony is that no one wants to cut down the trees. They are one of the aspects that define the rural character of Johns Island and the reason most of us live here.
What can be learned from the new data that will help slow the accident rate on Johns Island roads? Two things appear to emerge from the data: First, it should be apparent that increasing police enforcement for speeding on Johns Island roads would help, but it will not stop inattentiveness, failure to yield the right-of-way, following too closely, animals in the road, fatigue, medical problems, faults with the vehicle, driving under the influence or any of the 29 other probable causes of accidents reported in the database.
Second, the widening of existing roads will increase capacity on the roadways and make driving easier and safer, but unless we are willing to cut down the roadside trees, they will still threaten driver safety. One must consider the growth potential of the area, the rate of growth over the past years and the wishes of present residents on the island who want to retain the island’s rural character. With this in mind, the solution that makes the most sense is the one recommended by five separate engineering studies over the past 20 years: remove traffic from the existing roads by diverting it to a new alignment constructed to modern standards. This will improve safety and accommodate current and anticipated traffic levels.