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Rise in traffic deaths prompts action from public safety sector

After kissing her husband Tolbert goodbye, Brenda McNeely never expected the trek that began on a shiny, chrome bike would end in a cold casket.

"It still feels like he's at work and he'll be coming home soon," McNeely said. "It's like I'm on the outside watching another family. I can't explain it."

Charles Tolbert McNeely of Rock Hill, a 62-year-old CAD designer at Lancaster's Morrison Textile Machinery, died Aug. 17 when his Harley-Davidson motorcycle ran off the road, slid down an embankment and struck a large rock along U.S. 178 in the mountains of Pickens County, according to the S.C. Highway Patrol.

State of shock

Brenda McNeely said Tolbert and his son, Brian McNeely, were riding their motorcycles on scenic routes to visit family in Tennessee when Tolbert lost control. He died from internal injuries suffered in the crash, the Pickens County coroner said.

"Brian looked in his mirror, and his dad wasn't back there," Brenda McNeely said. "It just puts you in such a state of shock. Makes you go numb."

Tolbert McNeely is one of 11 residents of York, Chester and Lancaster counties to die in motorcycle accidents this year, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety. Statewide, 71 people have died on motorcycles this year, and a total of 618 individuals have been killed in all vehicle crashes.

Public safety officials say those numbers are higher than last year (556 dead by this time in 2006), and they're taking steps to prevent future highway deaths. Officials recently formed a Motorcycle Safety Task Force, and they've boosted patrols all summer to prevent speeding and drunken driving.

The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is called the 100 Days of Summer and is known as being one of the most deadly times to be on state highways. This year, 267 people were killed in traffic accidents during that span, up 33 lives from last year, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety. Forty-one people from York, Chester and Lancaster counties have died on highways this year, public safety officials said.

Sgt. Chris Blevins of the York County Sheriff's Office traffic unit said most of York County's 18 deaths can be attributed to three factors: speeding/aggressive driving, driving under the influence and inattentiveness.

"One problem is people get in the car and they're in a hurry to get home, they're calling people, maybe stopping to pick up a little one from day care, and they're not paying attention to their surroundings," Blevins said. "The car is one place you don't need to be multitasking. Be focused and get out of your own little world."

Blevins said speeding and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol are major concerns. That's why area law enforcement team up monthly to patrol known trouble spots to catch and deter drunken drivers and speeders.

"We're banding together," he said. "Not to get revenue, but we're out here trying to save people's lives."

Motorcycle rate 'unacceptable'

Ed Harmon, a member of the task force, said motorcycle deaths are increasing in South Carolina and nationwide by as much as 50 percent in recent years. With 71 motorcycle deaths already this year, the state is increasing at a 10 percent clip, he said.

"We're on pace to eclipse last year's numbers (108 motorcycle deaths), and that's just unacceptable," Harmon said.

Harmon, a planning and evaluation manager for the S.C. Department of Public Safety, said better training for motorcyclists will go far toward decreasing fatal accidents. State law requires motorcyclists to obtain a beginner's permit before riding, but because permits can be continually renewed by passing only a written test, bikers have no incentive to pass a road course, Harmon said.

"In South Carolina you can pretty much ride forever on a permit," he said. "We're looking at ways either through legislation or policy to change that."

Another way to decrease fatalities, Harmon said, is through protective equipment. He said a Motorcycle Safety Assessment Team in May conducted a weeklong study in South Carolina and recommended tighter laws on the use of helmets. Current state law gives bikers the choice of whether to wear a helmet, he said, but statistics show in 90 percent of motorcycle deaths, the person wasn't wearing a helmet.

Harmon said there's not a push to change laws at this point, only to raise awareness of the importance of wearing a helmet.

"Part of our strategy is to educate people and make them aware that using safety equipment greatly reduces the risk of fatality," he said. "The statistics are overwhelming."

York biker Rodger Totherow is an area coordinator for S.C. ABATE, the state's chapter of A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, a motorcycling advocacy group. Instead of new helmet laws, he believes many motorcycle accidents could be prevented with better training for all drivers and more public awareness.

Totherow said many drivers aren't aware of their surroundings and don't notice motorcycles approaching.

In June, Chester resident Gene Jolly was killed when a tractor-trailer turned in front of him while he was riding his motorcycle on S.C. 9 near Richburg. The 62-year-old and his wife, Vickia, riding a separate Harley-Davidson, slammed on their brakes. She stopped. He didn't. Jolly died of head injuries after colliding with the truck. The truck driver was ticketed for failure to yield right of way, according to the Highway Patrol.

Driver vigilance needed

Totherow said those kind of accidents could be prevented by raising more awareness among drivers. He said the S.C. ABATE group is pushing state leaders to add a motorcycle-awareness element to all high school driver education courses.

"We need to not only educate the motorcyclists, but all drivers," he said. "It's education on everybody's part that's needed."

Another concern among motorcyclists is the number of untrained riders on the road, Totherow said. He said inexperienced drivers often buy the newest, fastest motorcycle and hit the highways with a beginner's permit and little training.

"Then they go out at dangerous speeds, and that's a problem," he said.

He agreed with Harmon that more incentive is needed to force new drivers to pass a road test.

But not all deaths can be attributed to a broken law or careless driver.

That's a big reason why Brenda McNeely has struggled with her husband's death. Authorities said Tolbert McNeely wasn't speeding or intoxicated. He didn't break any traffic laws, and Brenda said he even took extra precaution by wearing a helmet and other protective gear. She suspects an asthma attack or similar health emergency caused him to lose control of the motorcycle. "Maybe it was just God's time to take him home," she said.

Brenda said the tragedy has changed her attitude toward driving. Though she doesn't ride motorcycles, she hopes other bikers will learn something from her husband's death. And she has a new respect for highways, telling her loved ones to slow down and expect the unexpected.

"Everybody I talk to, I tell them to be careful," she said. "You can't change the past, but we can prevent tragedy in the future."

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One of these deaths was an out-of-county resident

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