Aug 21 2009

Op-Ed: 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 The Island Connection, I was reminded of the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. This article was neither honestly nor objectively based on available statistics.

A referenced study from the organization TRIP, which is funded by insurance companies and businesses, unions, and organizations involved in road-building, provides us with astonishingly contradictory statements: “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.” So, which is it? “These accidents can be directly attributed”, or is it “unfortunately… impossible to know… what caused them?” This is quite a firm conclusion to draw from “limitations in the data available”.

The data (presented in the online version of the article) shows accident causes and factors (they are very different). Over half of the 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 unclear how the roads’ “engineering, congestion and condition” contribute to unpleasant outcomes of these particular stupidities. Would a new road improve substandard behavioral problems?

43% (6/14) of deaths have DUI as the probable cause, and another 43% (6/14) are attributed to uncharacterized “other causes.” About a fourth of accidents (25%) and injuries (28%) are also attributed to these “other causes.” We do not know from the data what actually causes another 43% of deaths (in addition to 43% caused by DUI) and a fourth of the accidents and injuries. These, in addition to more than half of the accidents, are clearly caused by stupidity. The data strongly suggest that paying attention and not driving drunk would be very beneficial. Imagine that.

Half (7/14) of deaths involve trees as a factor (but not a cause). Should we build a new road to address the tree-related deaths, which might have other contributing causes, e.g., DUI? Would driving sober and avoiding trees be cheaper and less disruptive than building a new expensive road to avoid those trees?

70% of accidents and injuries, and 21% of deaths, involved “another motor vehicle” as a factor. Safe driving and being defensive to the unsafe behaviors of other drivers might have a larger, and zero-cost, effect on safety; more than building an expensive, disruptive new road.

The article states that “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 show absolutely no detail whatsoever related to specific incidents on specific roads. It is a completely irresponsible confabulation to make such a statement. Road characteristics are not a cause (“can be attributed”) of death; rather, they would be factors. However, It would be a virtual certainty to ascribe deaths to DUI and “other causes” since these categories comprise 86% (12/14) of deaths.

The “other factors” category shows that trees (7 deaths), another vehicle (3), pedestrian/bicycle (2), rollover (1) or ditch (1) are related to deaths, but not specifically for River Road. It is reasonable that “overgrown … century-old live oaks” might be a factor in half of the deaths on River Road. I seriously doubt the “overgrown … century-old live oaks” jumped out into the road so some other driver action must have caused these deaths. “Narrow travel lanes, sharp curves, lack of shoulders” are not a part of the mix of “other factors” consisting of another vehicle, pedestrian/bicycle, rollover, or ditch that are cited in deaths. More confabulation.

The data do not address number of vehicles (“congestion”), 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 totally disingenuous and specious.

So, do we spend lots of money and disrupt our beautiful island for a new road, or do we focus on encouraging responsible behaviors that accommodate the prevailing conditions? Active traffic law enforcement now is an effective alternative to building a new expensive road at some indeterminate time in the future. Police presence and enforcement can focus driver attention and improve driving behavior and personal responsibility — the absences of which are the cited causes of accidents and injuries/deaths on our roads. For the money that would be spent on a new road, how many cops could be funded to enforce the existing laws? How much road improvement could be done, how many drunks intercepted?

Better individual behavior costs nothing except perhaps some minimal time and effort, and disrupts the Island environment and residents in no noticeable way. Actually, focusing on not being stupid on any road would help reduce accidents and injuries by half. 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. You know, all those rules they teach you in drivers Ed, the ones you hope your kids obey.

Are there low-cost improvements to our roads that could improve safety by focusing attention, e.g. lighting, striping, signs, dots, reflectors, rumble strips, speed limits, etc.? Let’s implement relatively inexpensive improvements immediately and see how they work before a whole new expensive and disruptive road is even remotely considered as a proposed solution.

There is one clear inconvenient truth in this whole affair: a new road cannot address the fundamental behaviors that actually cause the carnage on our roads. The road conditions (“factors”) clearly exacerbate the consequences of these behaviors, but are not the causes. We know what these behaviors are. The data very clearly show them and we see them played out on our roads every day, all day long, by residents and transients alike. The statistics in absolutely no way whatsoever suggest we should spend tens or hundreds of millions of scarce dollars and disrupt the Island and its residents in pursuit of a wrong “solution”. 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.

1 comment

  1. My question is, will this article receive the widest possible circulation? The reason for this question is that I noticed that the flacks for our two neighborly, gated communities made certain that their article appeared in the ‘News & Courier’.

    And, let’s face facts, the successful resistance of we who live in fly over territory” (i.e. Johns Island) is at best, problematic. After all, we who have spent most of our lives here, paid taxes, fees, etc. – just don’t seem to have the political clout of developers and “comeyeahs”. Think that it may have something to do with increased revenues for various business or campaign fund raising.

    Then, there’s the “anti-” aspect of this resistance. Let’s face it, there is something very unattractive about requiring very important people to spend an extra 15 to 30 minutes in traffic, and – horror of horrors – forcing them to deal with the quaint driving habits of the local yokels.

    Perhaps in future, instead of being “anti-“, we locals (even with our limited powers of reasoning), may be able to convince current and potential “comeyeahs” that their real, spiritually and physically desired goals can best be realized in Punta Gorda or Boca Raton.

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