Investigation: Dangerous Driving in the Dark

By Matthew Nordin - bio | email

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Drivers making a late-night run to the supermarket or having to commute to work before the sun rises face a potentially dangerous situation along some major Myrtle Beach highways, an investigation has found.

Many primary routes in the area maintained by the state have poor lighting or none at all. A top traffic engineer with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, Tony Sheppard, reveals there is no standard for when lighting should be installed.

"We really do not have a standard," he said, "simply because it is more of a cost issue from a DOT perspective."

Myrtle Beach leaders requested lighting at the US-17 Bypass/US-501 interchange, the Grissom Parkway/US-17 Bypass interchange, and the new Fantasy Harbour Bridge. But according to Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea, the state turned them down.

For Anchor Taxi driver James Hoelzeman, the problem is obvious.

"It almost looks like you're going into a black hole," he said as he drove along 501 with the 17 Bypass overhead.

We requested two years' worth of accident data from the state for the interchange. The statistics show when there was a crash here, nearly one in five happened when it was dark.

"Highway lighting reduces accidents," said Tom Crosby of AAA Carolinas. "It's a major safety benefit."

Which begs the question, why wouldn't you put up lighting here?

Despite what the SCDOT engineer told us, Danny Isaac, who represents Horry County on the SCDOT Commission, claims it's not a lack of funding that's keeping Myrtle Beach drivers in the dark.

"I don't think it's ever been a funding issue," he said. "I don't know of anywhere in the State of South Carolina, that I'm aware of, that we need lighting and we don't have it because of a lack of funding."

However, Isaac doesn't deny the agency is facing major funding challenges. It gets 90 percent of its money from gasoline taxes, and many drivers have been cutting back on travel during the Great Recession.

"We've been off 4-5 percent in just reduced gas consumption in the last two or three years," Isaac said, noting that South Carolina has the fourth-largest network of state-maintained roads in the nation. "So we have more roads to maintain with much less money."

If money isn't the issue keeping Myrtle Beach highways from getting lighting, though, what is?

"Need and necessity," Isaac responded.

One might argue with improvements in the headlights found on today's cars and SUVs, highway lighting is not as important as it once was.

But AAA Carolinas' Tom Crosby says consider this: "The headlights only illuminate a certain part of the road. You don't always get good illumination from the side of the roads, shoulders and things of that sort."

He points out locals may know all the roads and exits, but they're sharing the highway with thousands of tourists who don't.

Traveling above US-501 on 17 Bypass, cab driver James Hoelzeman looks out into the darkness below: "You would think they would have something. This is a main thoroughfare. Look at this. You can't even see the road down there."

Hoelzeman isn't the only one concerned. Isaac said the first call he ever got after becoming a member of the SCDOT Commission in March 2008 was from a man who wanted to request some roadway lighting.

Isaac wouldn't say where that complaint was.

The constituent's request, like so many others, didn't go anywhere.

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