When an aspiring young photographer and recent Laurens District High School died in a single-car crash in Gray Court around 2:30 Sunday morning, she became the latest in a spate of vehicle fatalities in Laurens County over the last three months.
Keundra Thompson, 22, is the 25th person to be killed on Laurens County roads in 2023 and the 15th over the past three months.
None of the fatalities since Aug. 8 have occurred on either of the two interstate highways – I-26 and I-385 – that run through the county but have instead been only secondary county and state roads and U.S. highways such as U.S. 25 that travels through part of western Laurens County and through Greenwood and Greenville counties.
“Those roads tend to be the deadliest and that’s been our focus,” said South Carolina Highway Patrol Master Trooper Brandon Bolt, who is also communications officer for Newberry-based Troop 2.
As fatalities began to spike in Laurens County in late summer, the SCHP deployed its Area Coordinated Enforcement (ACE) team, which added to the SCHP’s visibility across the county.
Even with the added manpower temporarily located in the area, fatalities continued to spike, jumping from an averge of 1.4 per month in January through July to five per month since August.
Bolt said he expects an ACE team to return to Laurens County, but doesn’t know exactly when that might be. Currently, an ACE unit is being used in Orangeburg County in the midlands.
“The truth is, we can enforce the laws, but there are only so many of us (state troopers) to go around,” Bolt said. “So, really, people need to drive as safe as they can and do right by other people and by themselves.”
While distracted driving – due to cellphone usage or other items such as stereos – is been an increasing reason behind vehicle accidents in recent years, Bolt said so is “complacent” driving, particularly on two-lane roads and smaller highways.
“On backroads like so many of the ones in Laurens, there’s nothing to say that you’re not going to come around a curve and drive up on a (tractor) or a farmer riding a fence line on a four-wheeler,” he said. “People make the same drive every day and nothing happens, so you don’t think about it because you get behind your vehicle and everything is normal until it’s not.”
According to statistics from the South Carolina Department of Transportation, 823 people have died in traffic accidents across the state this year through Nov. 7. Neighboring Spartanburg County leads the state with 70 fatalities, and Greenville County has 58.
Counties similar in size to Laurens such as Newberry (7), Greenwood (12) and even Anderson (21), are outpaced by Laurens so far this year as 2023 winds to a close.
Bolt said lowering speeds and staying alert for the task at hand behind the wheel are among the subjects he addresses when speaking to younger drivers as he did recently at Laurens District High School.
“When I talked to my high school drivers, I told them about a few years ago when we had 1,179 fatalities,” he said. “You see a number, but it’s more than that. That’s 1,179 people who aren’t here for Thanksgiving, and 1,179 people who won’t be at weddings. . . . If everybody drove as safe as they could and was courteous to other drivers some of those could be avoided.
“I just tell them to always drive to the best of their abilities.”