Preventing traffic fatalities: A call to action by Colonel Russell F. Roark

Colonel Russell F. Roark III
Colonel Russell F. Roark III

By Colonel Russell F. Roark III

South Carolina Highway Patrol


Seventeen people died this past weekend in South Carolina – a fact that probably went unnoticed unless it happened in your community or you weave together news from all over the state. Five people died in one collision alone.

Today you'll probably get into you car to go to work, school or the grocery store. You may or may not buckle up. You'll talk on your cell phone. You'll turn around to check on the kids. You probably won't think about the fact that three people typically die every day in our state doing exactly what you're doing. Just getting in their car for a routine trip that turns disastrous in a second. Imagine what it would be like for your family to get that unexpected knock at the door from the coroner when it's you they are expecting home.

Death in a motor vehicle collision doesn't stop at the roadside or the funeral or the first year after your loved one is gone. It has an insidious trickle-down effect in which the lives of parents, siblings, and other family members often take a downward spiral because their family member literally vanished. No time to prepare. No chance to say goodbye.

Some families never get to touch or even see their family member before they are buried because of the severity of their injuries. I can't adequately describe the tragedy of a motor vehicle collision, but if you log onto our Fatality Memorial Site at  you will see the effect in family members' own words. I would encourage every parent in this state to require their young driver to read these stories.

Highway fatalities are an epidemic in South Carolina . And there is a vaccine that will potentially save more than half of those precious lives. A safety belt. I can't express to you the frustration that law enforcement, EMS , hospital personnel and coroners feel as they see person after person ejected from their vehicle when we know that they would have most likely survived the crash with a simple click. Ejection from a vehicle is a violent, unnecessary death.

On December 9, a new primary seat belt law takes effect in South Carolina . That means motorists are required to buckle up. If not, they will be stopped and ticketed for that violation. 886 people have died so far this year in South Carolina -- 499 of those were unbuckled.

Rest assured, if 886 people had died due to the bird flu or a hurricane, the national news media would have descended on our state in droves. But most of these tragedies barely get a mention on the news – a brief in the newspaper, a two-second sound bite on the evening news. Traffic fatalities have become commonplace because they happen one at a time.

When I talk with people about these tragedies, there is almost a resolve that it is a fact of life. But it doesn't have to be. It's unnatural and unnecessary. Highway fatalities are not accidents. We call them collisions or crashes because they are almost always attributable to human error caused by distraction, fatigue or carelessness.

The causes are simple: failure to yield, for example running a stop sign or pulling into the path of oncoming traffic; drinking and driving, speeding and failure to buckle up – all human error, all preventable.

Communities can no longer close their eyes and pretend it won't happen to them. Traffic fatalities don't happen to "someone else." Statistically, it is very likely that this will eventually hit close to home for you too unless we commit as communities and states to band together and treat this as a public health crisis not individual tragedies.

Real change will occur one family, one community at a time. Please help lead the way in your community. Contact the South Carolina Department of Public Safety at (877) 349-7187 and ask how you can become a Community Safety Ambassador.