Beaufort County is among South Carolina's more wreck-prone counties, according to AAA Carolinas, but local officials say improvements underway on several major highways should make driving safer.
Although not among AAA Carolinas' top five most "dangerous counties" in S.C. in 2012, Beaufort County did rank in the top quarter of counties with the most accidents. The county had 2,663 accidents for an estimated 1.118 billion miles driven. That translated to an 11th-place ranking among the state's 46 counties, according to the member-supported travel club based in Charlotte.
Slightly worse was the county's No. 8 ranking for the 62 motorcycle accidents that occurred in 2012.
In other categories, Beaufort County fared better but was still in the top half of the county-by-county rankings.
The county's best ranking was for accidents involving heavy trucks. The 23 accidents in this category gave the county a ranking of 45.
The statistics don't surprise Brendan Lambrix, owner of Giddyup Taxi On Hilton Head Island.
"How people drive here is terrible," said Lambrix, who has lived in San Diego, Michigan, Massachusetts and Orlando, Fla.
"I've never been in a place where so many people drive three inches from your bumper," he said. "You see it every day."
Just as irksome, he said, are sudden lane changes some drivers make.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner acknowledged the challenges of driving in Beaufort County. As with anywhere else, driver inattention and distractions are the main cause of accidents, he said. But other factors beyond the control of drivers also can make driving hazardous.
Lately, the amount of road construction -- particularly on U.S. 278 with its rows of orange-and-white barrels and lane closures -- has played a role in some accidents.
The "huge number of tourists in northern and southern Beaufort County" is another factor, Tanner said. Tourists who are unfamiliar with roads are "jockeying for position" with local drivers. Added to the mix is the county's "very mature driving population," he said.
Tanner pointed to another troublesome factor: bright sunshine in the early morning and late afternoon. On a busy east-west highway -- U.S. 278, for example -- drivers heading east in the morning can be blinded by the sun and encounter the same problem heading west in the afternoon.
"You're talking about 20,000 commuters in the morning and afternoon," Tanner said. "That's a huge volume of traffic."
Overall, Tanner said, road conditions in Beaufort County are better than they used to be, and should improve in the future.
Most of U.S. 278 from the Hilton Head bridges to Interstate 95 used to be two lanes; now it's four. And when the U.S. 278 widening project is completed next year, much of the highway will be three lanes on each side.
Similarly, S.C. 170 from Okatie to Beaufort's Robert Smalls Parkway used to be two lanes, but now is four lanes and mostly divided by a grass median. The other end of S.C. 170, connecting to S.C. 46, also is being widened.
The Bluffton Parkway has siphoned off some congestion from U.S. 278, Tanner said, and synchronized traffic lights on U.S. 278 mean less stop-and-go traffic. A new "flyover" interchange connecting U.S. 278 to the Bluffton Parkway east of Moss Creek will make traffic flow more smoothly between the two highways, he said.
Highway improvements have made a significant difference in the county, agreed Rochelle Ferguson, executive director of Palmetto Breeze, the public bus system serving Beaufort, Jasper and three other Lowcountry counties.
"I think by far and away, it's a very safe county to drive," Ferguson said.
"Of course, we've had a few times when drivers will come in and say, 'Somebody pulled right out in front of me.'"
But that's probably because "those people don't understand how long it takes to stop a bus," she said.