Spurred by concerns that traveling U.S. 278 in Bluffton has become more dangerous, the S.C. Department of Transportation will conduct a safety audit of the highway.
Engineers, law enforcement and emergency responders with the state, county and town of Bluffton will jointly study the corridor from the Beaufort-Jasper county line to Hilton Head Island to determine how the highway's safety compares to similar routes statewide. It will also consider what can be done to improve it.
The DOT is conducting the study at the request of Beaufort County to help determine whether the road is seeing more than its fair share of wrecks, state traffic safety program engineer Joey Riddle said. It was not clear Saturday whether the state or county will foot the bill, which Riddle estimated at $20,000.
Beaufort County traffic engineer Colin Kinton said the number of wrecks seems high on the road despite the addition of two lanes in a widening project completed in November and a series of small fixes since then.
While there's no way to reduce traffic along the corridor, there may be ways to cut the number of accidents, depending on the audit results, Kinton said.
"If the same type of accident is happening over and over and over again, maybe there's something you need to look at," he said.
WHERE THE WRECKS ARE
From June 2013 to June 2014, the most recent data available, there were 41 wrecks where U.S. 278 meets Simmonsville Road, according to S.C. Department of Public Safety data.
Near the Buck Island Road intersection, 28 wrecks occurred during the same period, including a four-car accident on June 5 that left a 65-year-old Bluffton woman dead. The cause of that crash remains under investigation.
The next day, in the same spot, a driver turning onto Buck Island failed to yield and hit another car. That crash injured two people, according to the Bluffton Police Department.
In that same timeframe, there were 26 accidents where U.S. 278 meets Buckwalter Parkway, the safety department found.
Kinton said he is also concerned about U.S. 278 intersections with Burnt Church Road, Malphrus Road and Moss Creek Drive. Riddle and Kinton noted that no data are available on the accident rates at those intersections. The audit will reveal those rates, as well as the causes of all crashes along the corridor.
So far, it appears the majority of accidents in Bluffton are caused by drivers following too closely, going too fast for conditions or driver inattention, according to the Department of Public Safety.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
A consultant, who will be hired in the next few months, will compile the findings and draft recommendations for the route.
Riddle expects to see those recommendations for changes by the end of the year and said most are likely to be modest tweaks that target specific problems.
"No one really has the funding to say, 'Let's go in and make changes all along U.S. 278,'" he said. "You're talking hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on what improvements you make."
Beaufort County has made some minor changes in recent months.
New flashing yellow lights at the highway's intersections with Buckwalter Parkway, Buck Island Road and Hampton Parkway give drivers more guidance in making turns, and allow some freedom to turn when there's no traffic, Kinton said.
Other roads, such as Simmonsville, already have protected left turns, meaning drivers can only proceed with a green arrow.
Physical changes along the corridor may not be necessary beyond that type of adjustment, said Senior Trooper Hannah Wimberly of the S.C. Highway Patrol.
Increased enforcement and education can go a long way in tackling speeding and distraction issues, she said.
"It's not necessarily the road conditions," she said. "There's just so much traffic, and you have a lot of motorists coming in who aren't familiar with the roadway."
The Bluffton Police Department is vying for a grant that would pay for two officers dedicated to traffic, Maj. Joseph Manning said. The grant recipient will be chosen in September, about the same time the audit is scheduled to begin.
Kinton says he expects enforcement to play a large role in improving safety for the thousands who travel the highway each day.
However, drivers should also be held responsible he said.
"There's a lot of traffic and a lot of people making decisions to turn left or turn right," Kinton said. "People need to be paying very close attention to what they're doing and not be distracted by phones ringing and the sandwich in their hands."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.