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Prom night highlights a growing danger in South Carolina. Pay attention, young drivers

Famous Last Words

In 2015, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. If you text and drive, your next message may be your last.
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In 2015, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. If you text and drive, your next message may be your last.

They're the likeliest group to be killed by distracted driving, in one of the worst states for it.

As prom season puts more and more under-20-year-olds together on the road, there's a call to attention amid sobering facts.

"We understand the mentality: 'it won't happen to me,'" said Ashley Underhill with motor vehicle safety nonprofit Choices for Chase. "We've all been there. Unfortunately for some it will take something like this to make them realize what can happen."

Choices for Chase is based in Hillsborough, N.C., but the group travels during prom season. They spent Wednesday at Indian Land High School, Thursday at Nation Ford High School. They have stops planned at York Comprehensive and Lancaster high schools in coming weeks.

All so other sisters don't get the call Underhill got in 2012, when her brother, William Daniel "Chase" Underhill, was killed.

"We do this so that no one else has to live the way we do," Underhill said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released a report on distracted driving. SafeWise, a safety and home security organization, compiled data from that organization and others for its own list of deadliest states for car crashes.

South Carolina ranked No. 3.

For 2016, the most recent year for comparing data, South Carolina had 20.5 deaths from car wrecks per 100,000 residents. Only Mississippi and Alabama fared worse.

South Carolina's rate was more than four times higher than Washington, D.C., and almost four times higher than New York. South Carolina had nearly three times the national average.

There are multiple reasons South Carolina roads prove dangerous.

Just this year leaders with the South Carolina Department of Transportation met with elected officials throughout the area with the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study. Those officials talked about roads and bridges in disrepair.

"Prior to last year, our funding for maintenance of the the road system was stagnate," SCDOT deputy secretary Jim Feda told elected officials. "We had not had a gas tax increase in 30 years."

Part of a new 10-year plan by SCDOT involves 1,000 miles of safety features for rural roads. Part of federal regulations scoring which roadwork projects get funded involves a safety evaluation. Regulators want to see how road projects will impact safety before signing a check.

"It’s a new way of doing business," SCDOT statewide planning chief Mike Sullivan told the RFATS group.

Spending on road safety isn't the only way legislators can impact it. SafeWise found none of its 10 deadliest states had a ban on handheld devices while driving. States on the other end of the scale largely did.

Nine of the deadliest states have texting bans while driving, with start years ranging from 2008 to 2015 and fines costing $25 -$500. South Carolina started its ban in 2014, with its $25 minimum fine tied for second lowest in the country.

Deleware, New York and Washington, D.C. each wrote more than 10,000 tickets in 2016 for hand-held use while driving (they have hand-held and texting bans). No ticket came with a fine less than $100.

South Carolina logged 53 tickets.

Cell phones aren't the only cause of distracted driving, but statistics show they are the dominant one. An estimated 481,000 drivers use their phones while driving each day. One in four car crashes are caused by cell use, yet 42 percent of drivers say they text or read email while driving and 70 percent of them do it despite knowing there's an increased risk of a wreck.

For young drivers, distracted driving is particularly harmful.

Ages 15-19 rank at the top for distracted driving, followed by ages 20-29. Both groups are twice as high or more compared to senior citizens.

And the latest national figures aren't showing progress.

The roughly 102 people per day who died in car crashes in 2016 represent a 13 percent increase since 2014. Fatal crashes involving distracted driving rose 17 percent from 2014. The 562 pedestrians and bicyclists killed is a 9 percent jump just from 2015.

Underhill understands throwing around statistics only goes so far with high school students and young adults. She went to high school. She still goes to high schools.

"We've heard this before," she said of many students' mentality. "We don't need someone else to tell us to put on our seatbelt. We get the eye rolls."

That's is why Underhill doesn't rely on statistics. She puts a face to the issue.

At a point in each presentation she unveils the tailgate from the truck her brother was driving in a street racing event. It has about 2,500 signatures on it from his funeral.

"You're thinking about yourself, but what about all these other people who care about you?" Underhill said.

There's typically a could've-heard-a-pin-drop moment about that time.

"They've heard it from law enforcement," Underhill said of her plea to students. "Our goal was to show families."

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