The S.C. Highway Patrol was pleasantly surprised heading into September 2012.
Fatalities on the state's roads had declined over the summer, and it seemed the trend could continue. Instead, the final three months of 2012 brought a spike in accidents that left the state with a total 737 fatalities, up 4.2 percent from 2011.
This year, officers are determined to buck that trend.
The Highway Patrol launched Operation Fourth Quarter on Oct. 28 to combat what they see as driver complacency made worse by the holiday season. Through Dec. 31, the patrol will be heavily concentrated on the most accident-prone routes, including U.S. 278 in Beaufort County, in the hopes of spotting distracted driving, speeding and DUIs to prevent accidents.
"We will continue to do what we have always done," Lance Cpl. Sonny Collins said. "This is a reminder -- let's be careful as we head into the end of the year."
Officers are already seeing encouraging results this year. Statewide, the patrol has recorded 646 fatalities, down about 12.3 percent from 2012's total. Fatalities are down 55 percent in Beaufort County and 41 percent in Jasper County, according to the patrol.
Last year's fourth-quarter spike was unusual, at least on U.S. 278 in Beaufort County. From 2008 to date, only 21 percent of the wrecks and 18 percent of accidents resulting in injuries or death on the highway occurred in the last three months of the year, according to an S.C. Office of Highway Safety report.
Still, Highway Patrol Capt. J.C. Filyaw identified the route as one of four areas of concern in his troop, which encompasses six Lowcountry counties. The other problem roads were Interstate 26 in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, Interstate 95, and U.S. 17A in Berkeley County. These highways see the heaviest traffic and most accidents, Collins said.
The most recent local fatality was on U.S. 17 in Jasper County, when two women were killed Nov. 6 when one drove into oncoming traffic and collided with the other's car.
Regardless of the route, it's up to drivers to make good decisions when it comes to safety, and many still don't, Collins said. Of the 415 motor-vehicle occupants killed this year, only 158 were wearing seat belts, according to the patrol.
"It's not the road that's a problem, but people's actions on it," Collins said. "Let's keep safety in mind."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.