Highway Patrol under scrutiny as study finds traffic tickets down, deadly crashes up in SC

Highway Patrol under scrutiny as study finds traffic tickets down, deadly crashes up in SC

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The number of traffic citations and warnings issued to drivers on South Carolina roads is down, although the number of deadly crashes is up, according to a recent study conducted by lawmakers.

The South Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) is under scrutiny; a panel of lawmakers is studying the department, to provide recommendations on how to make roads safer. One cause for concern is the decrease in traffic tickets being issued by troopers with the Highway Patrol.

From 2012-13 to 2015-16, there was a 19.14 percent decrease in citations and warnings, according to the House Legislative Oversight Committee's report. From 2013 to 2016, fatalities increased by 32.33 percent.

WIS asked DPS Director Leroy Smith for an interview on these statistics, but he would not answer questions on camera.

Approached outside of the Criminal Justice Academy as a meeting wrapped, Smith replied, "I don't think that now is the right time to discuss those things, ma'am," when Reporter Ashleigh Holland asked, "You're not aware that there's, fewer citations being written than in the past by troopers?"

"I would be more than happy to provide you any data that you request here, ma'am," Smith answered to WIS' question: "You won't be able to comment at all?"

Sgt. Bob Beres with the Highway Patrol later responded to the request for statistics and questions.

He reports there were 423,985 citations issued in 2015, 290,520 warnings issued. In 2016, he says there were 404,847 citations issued and 274,968 warnings issued. So far this year, Beres reports there have been 223,419 citations issued, 156,927 warnings.

When asked on what kind of factors can contribute to a decrease in citations being issued, Beres explained that troopers can be taken from road patrols for collision investigations and special duty assignments.

"This has an impact on enforcement numbers," Beres wrote. "Since 2012, we have seen the number of collisions worked increase by over 21,000. Each collision involved a significant investment of time for the trooper, which detracts from proactive enforcement activities."

Representative Todd Rutherford (D- Richland) sits on the Legislative Oversight Committee and says the study's findings are a cause for concern. Rutherford worries there's not adequate trooper to driver contact.

"While I do not support troopers going out and writing more tickets and I think that's a bad idea, I do believe that those contacts whether they're just writing a warning or someone are truly aggressive driving and bad driving, those contacts slow people down and in doing so, save lives," Rutherford says.

Rutherford questions the reasons behind fewer citations and warnings. He says something needs to be changed soon, to make roads safer.

"What we do know is that the number of troopers has not increased, and that they continue to lose senior troopers, that they're firing some of the wrong people, that they simply are moving in the wrong direction," he says.

When asked if fatalities can be linked to fewer traffic tickets, Beres says there are more factors at hand.

"Fatality reduction involves many factors including law enforcement, safety education, engineering/roadway factors and emergency response," Beres wrote. "But there are also external factors such as an improving economy and lower gas prices, an increase in vehicle miles traveled in South Carolina (over 48 billion in 2013 compared to over 54 billion in 2016) and personal responsibility on the part of drivers."

One agency to feel the impact of fewer citations is the Criminal Justice Academy, which trains each law enforcement officer to work in South Carolina.

"The most important component in law enforcement is here," Director Jackie Swindler says. "Our budget has been reduced considerably, as far as the amount of money coming in."

The legislative report finds that the Academy is down $318,201 from traffic tickets written by troopers decreasing from 2013 to 2016.

The agency doesn't just benefit from troopers' tickets; Swindler says there's been a funding decrease of about $2 million to his agency since 2009, from fewer tickets written by law enforcement as a whole across the state.

"What it limits us is to do other things, more advanced training, thinking of newer projects that are cutting edge or being able to purchase more equipment or technology or things such as that," Swindler says.

Swindler says he's working with lawmakers to change the way the Academy is funded, with a more steady revenue stream, instead of receiving 65 percent of the funding from traffic fines.

Copyright 2017 WIS. All rights reserved.