LUMBERTON — The recent deaths of a 24-year-old St. Pauls man and a 71-year-old from Elizabethtown bring to 31 the number of people who have died on Robeson County highways since January, according to the state Highway Patrol.
Robeson’s have been among the deadliest roads in the state since 2004 with an average of 53 vehicle deaths per year, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and a recent study by AAA Carolinas ranked the county among the worst for vehicle deaths per miles traveled in 2011.
“I think it has a lot to do with the traffic volume and with the interstates we have here, including I-95 and I-74,” said 1st Sgt. Ardeen Hunt, of the Highway Patrol. “Not only that, we have a lot of rural roads here.”
According to the study, rural roads are “killing grounds” for traffic deaths. Clay, Graham and Hyde counties — all rural — made up the top three of AAA Carolina’s list, while Hertford County, also sparsely populated, rounded out the list at No. 5, right behind Robeson County.
“Rural counties have roads that are generally narrower, with more curves, lower shoulders, faded or non-existent road markings and less police presence than major highways,” said David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas. “These roads are notorious for single-vehicle accidents involving speeding, drinking and younger drivers.”
According to Hunt, the Highway Patrol has investigated 28 fatal crashes in Robeson since January that have killed 19 drivers, 10 passengers and two pedestrians. Ten of those crashes were single-vehicle accidents. Alcohol was a factor in 10 deaths, including one pedestrian and one passenger on an ATV.
Seven of those killed in automobiles were not wearing a seat belt, Hunt said. Of the seven fatalities that involved dirt bikes or motorcycles, only three people who were killed were wearing helmets.
According to Hunt, two drivers were 19 years old or younger, and six passengers were 18 or under.
According to the National Highway and Transportation Traffic Safety Administration, 57 percent of fatalities involving young drivers occur on rural roadways. Sixty-one percent of young drivers killed are not wearing a seat belt; 54 percent of teenage passengers in cars driven by young drivers were killed as a result of not being restrained.
Hunt said that the Highway Patrol makes an effort to regularly place troopers in schools, churches and community youth programs in order to teach safe-driving habits.
“As far as transportation safety is concerned, I think education has a lot to do with it,” Hunt said. “Educating the public on the dangers of operating a vehicle, that’s where our role as law enforcement officers comes into play.”
The total number of traffic fatalities in the state has dropped 8 percent, from 1,328 in 2010 to 1,217 in 2011, according to AAA Carolinas. The declining number is attributed o targeted traffic enforcement on crash-prone roads, a decline in miles traveled and more safety features in new cars, such as traction control.
“It is gratifying to see the decrease in fatalities but dismaying to note that more than three people still die every day on North Carolina roads,” Parsons said.