Local and state law-enforcement officials fear there may be little they can do to curb rising traffic fatalities in Beaufort County this year.
According to statistics from the S.C. Department of Public Safety, 18 people have been killed so far this year in accidents across Beaufort County. The fatalities include a 2-year-old killed Oct. 3 in an alleged hit-and-run crash on Hilton Head Island and an 18-year-old Beaufort man whose motorcycle collided with a pickup Oct. 9 in Port Royal.
This year's death toll is the highest in Beaufort County in four years, and a considerable jump from 2009 when crashes killed eight people over the same span, according to Public Safety Department statistics. The statistics are compiled from Highway Patrol and news reports across the state, said Sid Gaulden, Public Safety Department spokesman.
Fifteen people were killed in 2008 and 15 in 2007 in the county over the same period, Public Safety Department records indicate.
Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister said stemming the fatalities is difficult because there doesn't seem to be a common reason for the accidents.
The crashes have ranged from bicyclists and motorcyclists being struck by cars in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island to a fiery one-vehicle crash May 23 in a Lady's Island subdivision that killed a Marine captain stationed at Parris Island.
"What's frustrating from a law-enforcement standpoint is that we're doing targeted alcohol enforcement and targeted speed enforcement and then we see this increase," McAllister said. "It's not an increase that can be attributed to any one thing."
McAllister said the 2009's relatively low fatality count might have been an anomaly, but the sharp increase this year is alarming nonetheless.
"Eight was a pretty low number for our county," McAllister said. "It'd be one thing to see a slight increase, but going from eight to 18 is a pretty significant bump."
Capt. Alan Beach, spokesman for the Port Royal Police Department, said drivers might be distracted by increasingly ubiquitous electronic devices.
"You're in the car, you're on the phone, the radio's on, your GPS device is talking to you," Beach said. "There's too much going on inside that car, and it only takes a split-second to take your eye off the road and get in an accident."
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the role alcohol has played in several of the crashes this year cannot be understated.
"Alcohol is a suspect in a good many of these crashes," Tanner said. "From a law enforcement perspective, we need to be more aggressive in how we enforce our DUI statues in South Carolina. If you've been arrested for DUI for the first time, that's just the first time we've caught you."
None of the fatal crashes this year has occurred within Beaufort city limits, which Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy attributes to a little luck and targeted enforcement of "hot spots," where department statistics show a history of wrecks and citizen complaints.
"Traffic enforcement is just one of the things we can do to reduce speed and reinforce safe driving habits," Clancy said. "We believe in high-visibility enforcement, where people can see marked patrol cars and they get in the habit of slowing down."
While Beaufort County authorities try to reduce local traffic fatalities, statewide deaths are down so far this year compared to the same period last year.
According to Public Safety Department records, 616 deaths have been recorded in South Carolina as of Oct. 10, down from 702 during the same period in 2009, 724 in 2008 and 836 in 2007.
Cpl. Paul Brouthers, spokesman for the S.C. Highway Patrol, said seeing similar results in Beaufort County will take law enforcement and drivers each doing their part to make roads safer.
"It's a shared responsibility between law enforcement and drivers who are ultimately the principle stakeholders in their own safety," Brouthers said.