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South Carolina's at-risk drivers linked to disadvantaged communities and schools

Behind the Wheel

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From the small wooden crosses that dot South Carolina highways to the broken glass and oil stains that litter intersections across the state, every driver knows how to identify the scene of a collision. But what can be learned if instead of focusing on where an accident took place, we examined the communities that produced these unfortunate drivers and pointed them in the direction of a crash? That's exactly what one local researcher did — and what he learned is that drivers who experience a collision have more in common than just a roadside accident.

At-Risk Drivers - At-Risk Drivers: Significant clusters of at-risk drivers (who contributed to fatal or injury crashes) per 1,000 drivers across South Carolina can be seen in red on the map. - PROVIDED
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  • At-Risk DriversAt-Risk Drivers: Significant clusters of at-risk drivers (who contributed to fatal or injury crashes) per 1,000 drivers across South Carolina can be seen in red on the map.

In 2016, the S.C. Department of Public Safety reported 762 fatal accidents on the state's roadways. So far this year, more than 200 fatal accidents have occurred across South Carolina. According to a new series of research, the characteristics that factor into a driver's likelihood of dying or being injured in a collision extend far beyond just when they step behind the wheel.

In earning his PhD from Clemson University, Dr. Kweku Brown aimed to identify what communities throughout South Carolina were home to a high density of drivers involved in crashes and see what, if any, characteristics they shared.

Mapping the residences of drivers who contributed to fatal and injury crashes from 2007 to 2012, Brown was able to find which communities had the highest concentration of at-risk drivers and what people living in these areas had in common. He discovered that communities with more at-risk drivers were more likely to have a lower median income, higher levels of poverty, and higher levels of college dropouts. These communities also had higher proportions of the African-American population and fewer vehicles or older vehicles per household. In his research, Brown also found the most at-risk age group across all communities — teenagers.

Dr. Kweku Brown - PROVIDED
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  • Dr. Kweku Brown

"Regardless of what happens to your vehicle on the road, you still have to make split decisions in seconds and microseconds. That affects the outcome when faced with the problems that the vehicle or roadway might pose. There's always the human element," says Brown, who currently teaches civil and environmental engineering at The Citadel.

Since Brown's research touches on a wide array of factors, from the socioeconomic status to the racial makeup of communities, he believes a multi-disciplinary research effort would be able to build off of his findings and lead to a better understanding of why drivers from certain demographic groups and areas are considered to be more at risk.

Taking a deeper look into the data on teen crashes, Brown examined what high schools had the highest concentration of at-risk drivers and what these schools were doing to prepare their students for the road. In doing so, Brown found that the top five public high schools with the highest concentration of at-risk drivers are all located in the Charleston area.

Burke High School ranks No. 1 in terms of highest proportion of students at-risk for a traffic accident resulting in injury or death. Burke is followed by Baptist Hill High in Hollywood, St. John's High on Johns Island, the now-defunct Lincoln Middle-High School in McClellanville, and North Charleston High.

Interestingly enough, not all local schools share this unfortunate distinction. Four Charleston-areas schools — Ashley Ridge High, Goose Creek High, Hanahan High, and Wando — were identified as having a low proportion of at-risk young drivers per 100 students. A comparison of these two groups in the Charleston area found that school attendance zones with lower rates of young drivers involved in crashes generally have higher graduation rates, a lower poverty index, a higher percentage of teenagers in school, higher student/teacher ratio, and higher overall school ratings.

"A ranking of the top 15 and bottom 15 high school attendance zones ... was done based on at-risk young drivers per 100 enrollment. The ranking identifies specific high school zones to be considered when addressing young driver safety," Brown wrote in his analysis of which school zones cater to the most and least at-risk students. "The bottom 15 schools serve as possible positive examples and could be examined to see what programs or practices could be adopted to improve young driver safety."

In his research, Brown also points out another commonality among schools with the highest and lowest proportion of students most at-risk to die or be injured in a traffic collision.

Created in 2007, South Carolina's "Alive at 25" program involves off-duty officers and safety professionals teaching a four-and-a-half hour course on the behaviors, decision-making factors, and risks that young drivers face when they get out on the road. While carrying out his research, Brown found that nine of the 15 schools with the lowest rate of at-risk students drivers required that all students complete the Alive at 25 program before graduating. By comparison, the program was mandatory for students at only two of the schools with the highest rates of at-risk drivers. Of the most at-risk schools in the Charleston area, Brown found that only West Ashley High School offered the program, but students were not required to participate in the class.

"Therefore, through this research, the 'Alive at 25' program could be recommended for implementation in zones with high at-risk young driver crash rates contributing to the overall preparedness of teen drivers and the safety of the society as a whole," concluded Brown in his dissertation. "The findings of this research imply that working to improve overall high school education where there are improvements in characteristics, such as enrollment rate and on-time graduation rates, could potentially influence young driver behavior in a positive way."

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