Reducing traffic deaths

South Carolina may be headed toward a record number of traffic fatalities this year. Sadly, state lawmakers could have done something to prevent it.

A total of 618 people had died in vehicle crashes in the state as of last week, compared to 556 during the same period last year. Of those, 71 died in motorcycle accidents this year, a rate likely to eclipse last year's total.

Some of those accidents were due strictly to driver error. For example, 145 deaths were attributable to running off the road, failure to yield right-of-way and disregarding traffic signals or signs.

But speeding or driving too fast in inclement conditions contributed to 185 deaths. That number undoubtedly could be reduced with increased enforcement. First, however, the state must hire enough troopers to do the job.

More troopers might also mean better enforcement of mandatory seat belt laws. So far this year, 272 people who died in auto accidents weren't wearing seat belts, and seat belt use was partial or unknown in 48 other deaths.

Another 93 fatalities occurred as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The General Assembly this year was poised to pass sensible DUI reforms but, inexplicably, failed to do so.

South Carolina has the fifth-highest rate of drunken-driving fatalities in the nation. Legislation was introduced early in the session to stiffen penalties for drunken driving, including proposals to increase driving license suspensions for people who refuse to take a breath test; graduated penalties depending on blood-alcohol levels; and authorization of the use of ignition interlock devices that prevent offenders from starting their cars if they are intoxicated.

Significantly, the legislation also would have required treatment for all convicted drunken drivers, no matter what level of offense. But when the session ended, none of the bills had reached the floor of either house.

If South Carolina is serious about reducing the number of motorcycle deaths, it also could pass stricter motorcycle safety laws. South Carolina, which requires helmets only for riders under age 21, is one of 27 states that mandate helmets only for some motorcycle riders. Only three states have no helmet laws, and 20 states and the District of Columbia require helmets for all riders.

But South Carolina also has a quirky loophole that essentially allows motorcycle riders to drive without ever actually getting a motorcycle license. 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. That loophole needs to be closed.

Also, state lawmakers probably could reduce the motorcycle fatality rate even without passing a mandatory helmet law for all riders. In Texas, for example, helmets are required for all riders, but those 21 and over who successfully complete a state-approved training and safety course or those covered with an insurance plan providing at least $10,000 in medical benefits for injuries incurred while operating a motorcycle can ride without a helmet.

This is more than just an issue of personal freedom to do dangerous things. Studies show that about half of all motorcycle crash victims have no medical insurance, and government must cover the majority of the medical costs for those with no insurance -- which means all of us pay for their recklessness.

Multiple studies have shown that helmets decrease the likelihood of death in an accident, the severity of injury and the overall cost of medical care. If more motorcycle riders wore helmets, the death rate would decrease. The state needs to do a better job of encouraging helmet use and safety training.

Again, if South Carolinians are serious about reducing traffic fatalities, we can do something about it.

If South Carolinians are serious about reducing traffic deaths, we can do something about it.

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