Jul 09 2009

Johns Island Roads: Unsafe At Any Speed!

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.

Details list of accidents on Johns Island for 2006 - 2008

Details list of accidents on Johns Island for 2006 - 2008

2 comments

    • Rich Thomas on July 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Johns Island Roads: Truths, Inconvenient Truths, and Statistics

    By Rich Thomas, Southern Johns Island

    Reading the article “Johns Island Roads: Unsafe At Any Speed!” in the July 10 issue of this newspaper, I was reminded of the phrase “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Wikipedia tells us this “refers to the persuasive power of numbers, the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions.” That second point applies most directly.

    When presented with such facile analyses as put forth in the article, it is first important to take a close look at the actual data to see 1) where they came from, 2) whether they are valid, and 3) what they might actually tell us. Numbers can indeed be powerfully persuasive, when presented honestly and objectively, as they have no agenda or preconceived ideas.

    But first, I see that a referenced supporting study comes from the organization TRIP. TRIP says it is funded by insurance companies and businesses, unions, and organizations involved in road-building. One might reasonably conclude that groups interested in road-building might have at least a small agenda in preparing and presenting self-serving “analyses” that support road-building. Kinda sets the context for all that follows in the article.

    First thing we see is this set of astonishingly contradictory statements, apparently derived from the TRIP study: “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.” [emphasis mine] So, uhh, which is it — “these accidents can be directly attributed” or is it “unfortunately… impossible to know… what caused them?” Unfortunate indeed! Quite the set of firm conclusions to draw from “limitations in the data available.” I am only one paragraph into this article, and already totally confused by self-contradictory arguments, what should I believe? Perhaps further study of the actual data will clarify matters a bit and lead us to conclusions that at least have some substantive basis.

    So, now let’s see how we might understand how particular conclusions can (not) be reached. Note that the presented data are the result of some other previous analyses, derived according to some unreported processes, and therefore are not original data from which to start our review. We are already one step or more removed from the unmolested sources of information, which should give pause to even the casual reader. Oh, and there is no actual “congestion” data presented either. But let’s go on as best we can anyway, paying particular attention to causes and factors.

    Looking at the data table (presented in the online version of the article) we can readily see that over half of accidents (55%) and injuries (52%), but only one death, are related to four “probable causes”: distracted/inattention, failure to yield right of way, following too closely, and going too fast for conditions. It is not clear how the roads’ “engineering, congestion and condition” contributes to the unpleasant outcomes of these particular examples of driver stupidity. No strong indication from these data that building a new road would improve the substandard behavioral problems.

    43% (6/14) of deaths have DUI as the probable cause, and another 43% (6/14) are attributed to “other causes” that are not characterized in the data set. About a fourth of accidents (25%) and injuries (28%) are also attributed to these “other causes.” It would be useful to know what actually causes nearly half of the deaths (in addition to the other near half caused by DUI) and a fourth of the accidents and injuries (in addition to the more than half caused by behavioral stupidity), but alas, it is still not clear. The particular “other causes” have not been presented in this refined data set. So can we still blame the roads? Do we still need to build a new one? No indication from the statistics that a new road would be the solution, but an extremely strong suggestion that paying attention and not driving drunk would solve a lot of the problem. Imagine that.

    Half (7/14) of deaths (but only about 10% of accidents and injuries) involve trees as a factor (NB: not a cause). It is not clear how the trees and other factors together relate (e.g., a drunk going too fast hitting a tree at night) because these correlations are not reported in the data here. The incidence of death with a tree involved is much higher than accidents or injuries with a tree. What to make of that beyond one is more likely to die from hitting a tree than just to be injured? Either way, not clear enough to say, “Build a new road.” But trees are clearly a major factor in deaths, and DUI as a cause, about equally. Should we build a new road to address DUI-caused deaths? Or just build it to address the tree-related deaths (which might have other contributing causes as well)? Will people still kill themselves and others by driving drunk, faster, on a new road? What then? Spend more money on some other disruptive scheme? Would driving sober, more sanely and avoiding trees be cheaper and less disruptive than building a new expensive road to avoid those trees? Would it also be effective to discourage DUI on our roads, old or new? The data do suggest these approaches would be useful.

    We also see that 70% of accidents and injuries, and 21% of deaths, involve “another motor vehicle” as a factor. How would another motor vehicle involvement suggest the road itself is unsafe? Again, perhaps in some imaginable situations, but not entirely clear enough to spend millions of dollars on a new road. It would seem that a focus on one’s own safe driving behavior, and being defensive to the unsafe behaviors of other drivers in “another motor vehicle,” might have a larger, and zero-cost, effect on safety than building an expensive, disruptive new road.

    The headline “unsafe at any speed” is partially correct in that “exceeding speed limit” appears to be a minimal cause (2 or 3% of accidents and injuries), though “too fast for conditions” accounts as a cause for 9% of accidents and 14% of injuries. Perhaps the headline “Unsafe with any stupidity” would be a better one since over half of the accidents and injuries, and half of deaths, are clearly caused by stupid behavior. It is reasonable to expect a new limited-access road would allow, maybe even encourage, the same stupidity, mixed with faster speeds and alcohol, with the same expected outcome of death and carnage. What would that new road fix again?

    The article states, “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.” The data presented show absolutely nothing of the sort, and it is pure irresponsible confabulation to make such a statement based on the presented data. In fact, the data presented show no detail whatsoever related to specific incidents on specific roads. And those particular characteristics of a road are not a cause (“can be attributed”) of death; rather, they would be factors, if indeed they actually were factors. It would be a virtual certainty though to ascribe the deaths to DUI and “other causes” since these categories comprise 86% (12/14) of deaths. (The other 2 deaths were due to a “medical problem” and “failure to yield ROW,” a behavioral issue). Maybe the raw data show these factors as related to “other causes” for the 4 deaths on River Road, but nothing in the data presented supports these statements in the least. Four deaths also occurred on “other roads” — no details are presented.

    The “other factors” category show that trees (7 deaths), another vehicle (3), or pedestrian/bicycle (2) are related (but not specifically for River Road) to 86% (12/14) of deaths. Rollover (1) or ditch (1) are the other “other factors.” So it is a reasonable expectation for “overgrown … century-old live oaks growing at the edge of the pavement” to be involved (e.g., a “factor”) in half of the deaths on River Road, but we do not know this explicitly. I seriously doubt the trees jumped out into the road though, so some other driver action (“cause”) must have been operative in these deaths. “Narrow travel lanes, sharp curves, lack of shoulders” are not part of the mix of another vehicle, pedestrian/bicycle, rollover, or ditch that are the “other factors” listed in deaths.

    The data do not address number of vehicles (“congestion”), only interactions with other vehicles, so we can not even speculate as to how traffic volume relates to the accidents, deaths, and injuries. Using that argument in the context of this article is disingenuous and specious since there is no comprehensive detailed data presented. But, even so, would using other means (in addition to ongoing stupidity mitigation efforts) to manage or reduce traffic volume provide noticeable results? This aspect is not particularly relevant in this specific discussion except in the sense that this argument was invoked in the article, with no detail as to the reasons for all the traffic on Johns Island (where is most of it coming from and going to, and when?).

    For reasons totally unclear, active traffic law enforcement is not being promoted as an immediate effective alternative to building a new road at some indeterminate time in the future. Police presence and enforcement can immediately and on an ongoing basis focus driver attention and improve driving behavior and personal responsibility — the absences of which are the clear prevailing causes of accidents and injuries/deaths on our roads. Random DUI checks can address that outstanding problem, as can getting repeat offenders off the roads in general. Are there low-cost improvements to our roads that could improve safety by focusing attention — lighting, striping, signs, dots, reflectors, rumble strips, speed limits, etc.? For the money to be spent on a new road, how many cops could be funded to enforce the existing laws, how much road improvement done, how many drunks intercepted, how much better behavior encouraged? Let’s promote these relatively inexpensive actions immediately and see how they work before the whole new road thing is even remotely considered as a proposed solution.

    The new road concept does not address the fundamental causes of the majority of the adverse events on our roads. The new road idea does address the tree factor, only one of the “other factors” that a new road could mitigate. Most of the deaths, injuries, and accidents as reported in these data are related directly to individual and collective stupid behavior and bad choices (“causes”) while driving. The road conditions (“factors”) clearly exacerbate the consequences of this behavior, but ARE NOT the causes. Are our roads unforgiving of these particular types of stupidity (causes)? Clearly so — factors associated with rural roads are much less forgiving in general, on Johns Island or anywhere else, to poor driving. So, do we spend lots of money and disrupt our beautiful Island to build a new, perhaps more forgiving road that allows or encourages more of the same causal behaviors? Or do we focus on encouraging positive behaviors that accommodate the prevailing conditions? Could we derive a much higher value for our dollars with immediate results, along with preservation of our island neighborhood?

    Actually focusing on driving safely, i.e., not being stupid, on any road would help reduce accidents and injuries by half. That is an individual personal responsibility, an attribute that seems to be minimally exhibited in the reported events. Pay attention, slow down, don’t tailgate, yield to others, stay on your side of the road, don’t yap on your cell phone, don’t pass on yellow lines, be considerate to your neighbors and hosts — you know, all those rules they teach you in drivers’ ed, and what you hope your kids obey. That costs nothing but perhaps a very small bit of time and minimal effort, and disrupts the Island environment and residents in no noticeable way. Might even save your life, your child’s life, or the life of someone else’s child. Enjoy your unique privilege of living and working in this wonderful place by respecting its unique characteristics and others on the road!

    There is one clear Inconvenient Truth in this whole affair: the Statistics in no way whatsoever suggest we should spend tens or hundreds of millions of scarce dollars, and disrupt the Island and its residents, to build a road that can in absolutely no way address the behaviors that actually cause the mayhem and carnage on our roads. We know what those behaviors are, the data very clearly show them, we see them played out on our roads every day all day long by residents and visitors alike. Very little is being done to address these behaviors, either by personal responsibility or enforced respect. Building a new costly and disruptive road will provide opportunities for the same and even more inventive stupidity with similar unpleasant results. Obfuscation of this Truth in support of a self-serving agenda does no good for anyone, and makes the proponents look foolish. Put your efforts into addressing the real problems on our roads, not the “Johns Island Problem” you see from off.

    • Carl Blum on August 24, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Hello:

    We will need more roads on Johns Island. The only question is: Will it be in your front yard ( widen River and Bohicket Roads ) or your back yard ( new road in the center of the island. The third option of between River & Bohicket Roads and their neighboring rivers is unthinkable, but possible.

    The population is growing and needs additional roads.

    Thank, Carl.

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