Our roads are the deadliest they’ve been in five years we saw a spike in traffic deaths in twenty fifteen. This has an unimaginable impact on one Lowcountry family who lost their daughter in a car accident on I-26. Sarah would be 23 in September, but she didn’t even reach her 8th birthday. Now, her parents fight for fewer deaths on our roads.
In 1999, the military offered Dino Schaefer a new position in Colorado. Dino, Paula, pregnant with their third child, 7-year-old Sarah and their 5-year-old son, Dino Jr. or DJ were leaving Charleston headed to Colorado to start their new life. Paula quit her job. They sold their home and packed up everything they owned in a moving truck and their car. They were excited to spend their first Christmas in the Colorado snow. They never even made it out of South Carolina.
Paula says that day will be with her forever. “She is sitting next to me in a vehicle reading a book to me 1 minute and 5 minutes later she’s dead. You don’t get that back. You can’t rewind time and people don’t understand that what they do impacts more than just one individual.”
Dino was driving the moving truck with DJ in the seat next to him. The truck packed to the brim with the boxes full of their things. Then pregnant Paula and Sarah followed behind in their car. They were headed West on I-26. At mile marker 126 right before the Sandy Run exit, an 18-wheeler changed lanes and didn’t see Paula’s car. He hit her pushing her into oncoming traffic.
Dino thinks back to what it was like watching it all happen in the rear view mirror. “Done. Snap. Like that. In the rear view I saw it. He hit her twice. She spun, couldn’t control it and shot across the median. I was in a box truck so when I’m looking in the mirror, once she went so far, I couldn’t see her anymore because the boxes were there. I didn’t know what happened until I pulled over. Once I pulled over and jumped out of the truck and my 5 year old who is 21 now was with me, I looked back and saw that the jeep had been T-boned by a Mazda because she went across into oncoming traffic.
Their parents say that 5 year old DJ and 7 year old Sarah were thick as thieves. That day DJ lost the big sister he admired and his best buddy.
Dino remembers, “[Paula’s] in ICU, Sarah’s in ICU no brain activity and this little boy, my son, goes to the cafeteria with his grandma and brings back an extra ice cream cone because he wanted one for his sister. That’s how much he loved her. That’s the things that stick in my head. That tug on me because he was robbed and it still affects him to this day. We were robbed because of someone’s bad decision.
Paula says, “Losing Sarah was just the most horrific thing any parent will go through and it’s not something that you will get over in a week, 2 weeks, a month, a year. I’m 15 years in and I’m just as impacted today as the day I lost her.
There are 973 reported traffic deaths in 2015. That’s a 15% increase and 150 more people dead. 3 out of 4 people were not wearing seat belts. Highway patrol’s Hannah Wimberly explains the increase.
“This year we had a lot of things happen here in the area,” Wimberly points out.” We had the flood. We also have a lot of motorists out here on the roadways because of gas prices decreasing. If people continue to drink, people continue to not wear their seat belts you will continue to see a rise here in the state.”
I looked through the data and October was the worst month Highway patrol’s Hannah Wimberly blames the historic flooding. The top causes for these deadly accidents—failure to yield, DUI and the number one cause is speeding.
“We even get passed as well.” Wimberly says “I’ve been passed out here on the interstate myself in a fully marked patrol car. People are such in a hurry.”
Paula says she cannot wrap her mind around how people justify driving so fast. “What purpose are you going to serve getting maybe 2 or 3 minutes earlier than if you had done the speed limit, but yet you jeopardized the 15-30 lives in the vehicles that you passed. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
Dino says…change comes when it’s too late. “Nobody puts in a speed bump until somebody gets ran over. There’s not a yield sign or a stop sign on a road until there is 2 or 3 fatalities at that intersection.” He challenges lawmakers by saying, “we’re all reactive and we need to stop being reactive and start be proactive.”
Every time he drives West on I-26 his mind goes back to that day. Now, that section of the interstate looks a little different. “I’m driving up that same stretch of road and mile marker 126 sticks out in my head like there’s no tomorrow,” Dino says. “The wire cables are up, the catch cables in the middle. If that would have been there, one year sooner maybe [Sarah] would be here today.”
Being proactive, the Department of Public Safety launched their “Target Zero” campaign. The PSA for the campaign poses the question, “what is reasonable goal for traffic fatalities in South Carolina?” They asked a variety of people across the state who answered things like, “We need to cut the number in half or more.” They then ask the follow up question of “what is a reasonable goal for traffic fatalities in your family?” The obvious answer is “zero.”
State Patrol’s Wimberly explains the focus of this campaign. “If it hits home for you—if it’s your mom your dad, your sister or your brother—then you realize how important it is. By then, it’s too late. We’re asking everybody, wear your seat belts, don’t drink and drive and slow down.”
Paula wonders if it even makes a difference. “Unfortunately, cops, state troopers and first responders can’t be the voice of reason every second of the day” she points out. “If you don’t get a community to buy in to Target Zero’s, road blocks or DUI checkpoints, those things aren’t done to hurt people. They’re done to save lives and a lot of people don’t even know that a target zero exists.”
She wants Drivers Education in schools. “A car is a weapon. It’s no different. It’s no different than a gun. It’s no different than a knife. It’s a weapon and it kills people and it can easily take a life. If they were educated a little bit more in schools and they understood the impact that driving has and what it can cause for people like myself or him or our entire family then maybe they would understand that it’s not worth it.
Now, the Schaefer’s fight for stricter traffic laws. “If I could change the state of South Carolina by myself I would have already done it,” Paula says. “This is home for us. We can never leave the state of South Carolina. This is where our baby is laid to rest. This is it. This is the end of the road for Dino and me. We will live in Charleston, South Carolina for the rest of our lives. Why not make an impact right here?”
The Schaefer’s started a nonprofit called Sarah cares dedicated to helping families after the loss of a child. Click here to go to Sarah Care’s Facebook page.