There were no skid marks when Melondy Hicks' car left the road last July as she was heading down Interstate 95, suggesting she fell asleep at the wheel. Her 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee struck the guardrail and flipped over and over, throwing her from the vehicle. Her nine-month-old baby was still strapped in her car seat. Hicks died at a nearby hospital, but rescuers were able to save her little girl.
While fatigue and falling asleep behind the wheel are largely a problem with dark, rural highways, a City Paper review of state public safety records suggests that the busy, speedy traffic on Interstate 95 provides its own unique and tragic dangers for drivers too exhausted to keep going, particularly the 86-mile stretch from I-26 to the state line outside of Savannah.
A review of five years of accident data on the state's five main interstates (95, 20, 26, 77, and 85) found that I-95 was home to an overwhelming number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities due to fatigue or falling asleep behind the wheel. I-95 accounted for 77 percent of the fatalities on the interstates. But the most dangerous stretch is from Orangeburg to the Georgia line — that route accounts for 46 percent of the fatalities, even though it's only 11 percent of the interstate miles included in our review.
"Doesn't surprise me at all," Jasper County Coroner Martin Sauls says about the findings. "It keeps us busy."
This danger zone on I-95 could be the result of several factors. Interstate 26, which runs a few more miles through South Carolina (but had seven fatalities over the five years, compared to I-95's 42) has nearly twice as many exits in the Palmetto State, providing more opportunities for weary travelers to safely get off the road.
The most important factor may be where people are going and where they're coming from. Interstate 95 is the main route heading up and down the East Coast. The stretch through South Carolina is halfway between the road's end in Miami and the Delaware River. Several victims, including Hicks, were traveling to or from Florida when they dozed off.
"It's such a long, straight road," Sauls says. "People are at the outer limits of what's physically possible when they get here. They're pushing themselves to go a little bit farther, and it catches up with them."
Hicks was heading between Florida and Florence before her fatal accident. Other out-of-state fatalities come from New York, Connecticut, and Virginia. In 2004, a Greyhound driver on the way to Florida was replaced mid-trip after he continued to doze off heading through South Carolina. One passenger said the driver had turned the overhead lights on in the bus and turned the temperature down to try to stay awake. The driver was stopped by police in Manning and replaced.
To determine the cause of fatigue or sleeping accidents when there aren't alert passengers, officers rely on evidence at the scene to suggest the cause. Fatigue or falling asleep are usually fingered when a vehicle has exited the road with no apparent effort to correct itself on the pavement, says Lt. Paul Brouthers with the State Highway Patrol. In some cases, it's hard to determine what's fatigue and what's inattentiveness (from cell phones, texting, eating, playing sudoku).
"Most are single car collisions where the driver overreacts when they exit the pavement, losing control of the car and either veering farther off the road or overcorrecting and overturning the vehicle," he says.
While getting off the road may be the easiest advice for tired drivers, it's more likely they'll take a stab at their own home remedies — caffeine pills, Red Bull, pinching themselves, sticking their head out the window, blaring the radio. Not surprisingly, some of these methods cause more harm than help.
While the sugary drinks and caffeine jolts provide short-term relief, it wears the body down in the long run, Brouthers says. Instead, he recommends drinking water or fruit drinks and to make frequent stops (enough water and fruit drinks would likely force a few stops, themselves). He also recommends that drivers listen to talk radio instead of tunes. While most would be reluctant to spend a car trip with Rush Limbaugh, he's likely to keep drivers engaged longer than songs they can mumble along with until they've passed out.
Total number of miles and total fatalities from 2002 to 2006 due to fatigue or sleeping
I-95: 198 miles, 42 fatalities
I-26: 221 miles, 7 fatalities
I-77: 90 miles, 3 fatalities
I-20: 141 miles, 2 fatalities
I-85: 106 miles, 0 fatalities