MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) More than 300 people have been killed this year on South Carolina roads, with a handful of deadly crashes locally in the past few weeks. Most alarming to authorities is that several of the fatal crashes involved DUIs.
These fatal crashes are a wake-up call of just how lethal our area and state becomes in the summer. South Carolina Highway Patrol officers hope their 100 Deadly Days of Summer campaign will save lives, and WMBF News wanted to see what authorities are up against.
Our story starts where so many nights end, 3 a.m. Friday morning. Officers are called to a suspected DUI related crash in Myrtle Beach.
"It's a battle that we fight every day and night out on the roads," said Lance Corporal Sonny Collins of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. And if deadly DUIs and crashes like these are the enemy, SCHP Trooper First Class Mark Trotta is terribly outnumbered.
"Anywhere in Horry County, any time of the day, it seems to be that we come across impaired drivers," Trotta told WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely during a ride-along interview, while on his patrol of Horry County roads.
Horry County had the most DUI related deaths in the entire state for 2009 with 28, and finished behind just two other counties with 23 DUI related deaths in 2010. Collins explains that Horry County is home to vacationers and local alike, just wanting to have a good time.
"Horry County Is one of the busiest counties in the state and certainly during the summertime we have all the tourists down, people come down to let lose, to let their guard down a little bit, sometimes they make bad decisions," said Collins.
For one woman, however, another driver's bad decision turned into a life long loss.
"They told me that Bill had been hit and killed by a drunk driver and you cannot imagine the disbelief, the denial I guess," said Vikki Miller in an interview with WMBF News in 2009. An impaired driver killed Miller's husband at three in the afternoon in 1988. "I just slid to the floor and I stayed on the floor for about a year," Miller told Maely in an interview you can watch here.
Since WMBF News first introduced you to Miller three years ago, the involvement of alcohol in traffic deaths appears to be getting worse.
The most recent information from the NHTSA, ranks our state highest in America for the percentage of total deaths which involved an alcohol-impaired driver, but it's not just alcohol.
[View complete NHTSA report PDF.doc]
"Some people are under the influence and we're finding that it's under prescription medication and narcotics, illegal narcotics," said Trotta.
Authorities are hardly giving up, making more DUI arrests and beefing up patrols for their 100 Deadly Days of Summer blitz conducted from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
"We know these are the most heavily traveled times of our state, these are when the most fatalities happen, during any one block of the calendar year," said Collins.
During our ride along, WMBF News learned it's a battle zone on the roads. Just hours before the suspected Myrtle Beach DUI crash, Trooper Trotta showed us what he sees every night.
"Brake light out and they also made an improper turn," he said referring to one vehicle he pulled over. And he pulled two others over for speeding, but his eyes are peeled for much more than just speeders.
Another he pulls over for following too closely. "It's reasons like this you have a lot of rear-end collisions," Trotta said.
Not long into our ride along with Highway Patrol, an apparent seat belt violation led to what could have been a much more serious charge.
"I could smell alcohol coming from her," Trotta said.
After a field sobriety test, Trotta determines the driver is not impaired, but authorities arrested more than 1,500 in Horry County last year who were, and hundreds were involved in deadly accidents.
"When you have to go explain to a family member what has happened and it could have been so easily prevented, it is disheartening for the troopers, and it weighs on them every night," explains Collins. "I think that's what motivates them every night, to try to come and get these people off the road."
Trotta says just the highway patrol's presence leaves an impression on other drivers.
"It seems to be that people are more welcoming and they know that we're out here. That's the part that is actually very satisfying, because there are people out here that actually notice that we're out here working hard making a difference," said Trotta.
"We have a ten-fifty there at Magoo's," said Trotta. As expected, the troopers would see at least one more crash during our ride along. This crash involves a motorcycle and car, not deadly, but last year almost 830 in South Carolina were. Those crashes leave people like Vikki Miller without a husband, and authorities, risking their lives to save yours.
Authorities need your help to save lives. If you see a suspected drunk or careless driver, dial *HP (*47) from your cell phone and report it.
We've profiled other local police agency efforts to curb DUI, go here for Myrtle Beach data on DUIs so far this year.
And to find out what else SC is doing to help save lives, WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely is scheduled to sit down with SCHP and SCDPS officials for 30 minutes Friday at noon on WMBF News This Week. That broadcast will be posted here.