‘Save the trees, enforce the laws’ -- with video
Saving the trees and the lack of law enforcement were the main themes oft repeated Tuesday night at a SCDOT public hearing for the clear cut of trees in the median along what has been called the “death corridor” of Interstate 26 between I-95 and Summerville exit 199.
About 300 attended, many carrying homemade “Save the Trees” cardboard signs.
The evening began with an hour of mingling where attendees could look at maps and aerial shots of the highway, sign up to speak or submit written comments, and speak with representatives of the state and federal Departments of Transportation.
At 6 p.m. the state began a Power Point presentation explaining its reasoning behind its proposal to cut all the trees in the 29.6-mile stretch where fatalities are 20 percent higher than the rest of the state.
At the end of the presentation, those who had signed up were allowed two minutes each to speak for or against the tree cutting.
However at about 5:30 p.m. a man stood in front of the microphone and proceeded to address the crowd of some 300. Although asked quietly by at least three people to follow the planned sequence, he ignored these requests stating what he had to say would take more than two minutes and everyone wanted to hear him.
The state's presentation noted that the crashes in this stretch were double the state average and that although the 1,934 crashes between January 2007 and November 2011 were a normal amount, the 44 fatalities of the 1,934 crashes was 20 percent higher than the state average.
The state noted that the No. 1 reason for the crashes was distracted driving/falling asleep at the wheel. Second was DUI and third was speeding.
The various solutions were discussed including double guardrails of high tension cable, leaving the trees intact versus a single guardrail in the center of the median and clearing all the trees.
The basic premise is that the cable has a “give” of 10 to 15 feet whereas the trees offer no give and are more deadly.
Jordan Pace spoke first during the public comment session, representing U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford. Pace said that Sanford is not in favor of cutting the trees. Following Pace, many of the 42 who had signed up to speak came forward. Those that didn't, noted that what they had to say had already been said.
Jane Orenstein began by asking everyone in the auditorium who was in favor of cutting the trees to stand up. About three people stood. A cheer rose up from those sitting.
A number of people said they were “stunned” and “dismayed” that the town council of Summerville was in favor of cutting the trees, calling the council hypocritical since no one within the town limits can cut trees on their property without the town's approval.
Another noted that South Carolina is ranked second for having the worst drivers in the nation. Another called for the return of car inspections. Many, however, lamented the lack of law enforcement, blaming the lack of enforcement of speed limits, drunk and distracted driving, tailgating, etc., as the reason for so many crashes.
Others cited the lack of a shoulder and the steep incline on the sides of the highway.
Another informed the crowd that a 24-inch pine tree multiplied by 40,000 yards of such trees gave a $4 million benefit in reducing air pollution. This earned a round of applause.
A sobering moment came when Greg Elmore stood and told the group that his son was one of the fatalities and he found it offensive that such terms as “stupid drivers, texting, DUI” were being used as the reasons for the stats. “My son was not any of those,” he said, “nor was the young girl recently killed or the father of three ...”
Firefighter Sweatman of the Lebanon Fire Department in Berkeley County spoke of the 75 to 80 bodies and more than 600 people he has pulled out of cars along that stretch.
“If you go into the median, you've bought the farm,” he said. “Put up two sets of guardrails and leave the trees.” He blamed many of the crashes on inattention and speed.
Almost every speaker noted the lack of law enforcement and may felt the simple enforcement of the laws and presence of traffic control would do far more in curbing crashes than the removal of the trees.