Anyone who has lived in the Augusta area for more than a few months has probably already heard the warning: Be careful crossing the 13th Street bridge into South Carolina.
North Augusta Public Safety will be watching.
Motorists have been speeding across the bridge into North Augusta for decades only to see the flashing lights of a motorcycle cop in their rearview mirror along Georgia Avenue.
Last year alone, North Augusta Public Safety issued a total of 8,261 traffic citations, which included everything from speeding to more serious offenses such as driving under the influence. That was an increase of more than 325 citations from 2016.
But now, with the recent addition of the SRP Park and the Augusta GreenJackets’ inaugural season in the team’s new home, thousands of new guests will be crossing the Savannah River to enjoy all that North Augusta has to offer.
Just this week, the GreenJackets will host its first Thirsty Thursday of the season at SRP Park on Thursday, May 10.
During the GreenJackets’ game against the Rome Braves on Thursday, fans can enjoy Natural Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon beers for only $1.
Thirsty Thursdays were always a huge crowd pleaser and longtime tradition for past GreenJackets’ seasons at the team’s former ballpark at Lake Olmstead Stadium in Augusta.
And while North Augusta Public Safety encourages fans to come to the SRP Park and enjoy themselves at the game, the department also wants to remind everyone on the roadways to be smart and stay safe.
The message is clear: Don’t try to drink and drive, because you will regret it.
“The first thing we would like to see as a public safety department is, if somebody knows that they are going to drink more than a casual beer or something like that, we would like to see them go ahead and plan ahead,” said Sgt. Aaron Fittery of North Augusta Public Safety’s Traffic Division. “They need to get a designated driver to drive them or use an Uber or a Lyft to pick them up and take them to and from the game.”
In order to make travel to the games even easier, North Augusta City Administrator Todd Glover announced earlier this year that the city would provided Lyft, Uber and taxi pick-up and drop-off stations on Railroad Avenue parallel to SRP Park just feet from the main entrance.
“The Uber and Lyft drop-off lines are moving smoothly, but a lot of the people who are getting picked up, they are also using alternative pick-up points besides just the ones that the GreenJackets and the city have designated,” Fittery said. “For example, some people are telling their Uber or Lyft drivers, ‘Hey, meet me at the top of the hill,’ so they will meet up there, which will help get the traffic in and out even better.”
SRP Park can seat more than 5,000 guests for GreenJackets’ games and between 9,000 to 10,000 people for concerts or other special events, but currently, there are only roughly 1,100 on-site parking spaces adjacent to ballpark.
“So, if folks plan ahead and have a designated driver or arrange for an Uber or Lyft, that also helps with parking,” Fittery said. “That is just one less car that we have to worry about. Fortunately, parking hasn’t been a big issue for us. I think it has run relatively smoothly for the most part. There are also shuttles that get you to a certain point, which are free to the public. But the fewer amount of cars that we have to park, that makes it that much easier on us.”
Fittery also stressed that North Augusta Public Safety will not tolerate any form of impaired driving before, during or after the games.
“We take DUIs very seriously in our community. On average, we probably arrest about 150 DUIs a year,” Fittery said.
“Of course, it changes from year to year. Like, I remember one year we had about 300 and another year we had almost 200, so it just depends.”
The year that the department had approximately 300 DUI arrests was when North Augusta had a federal grant to fund H.E.A.T. officers, which are DUI enforcement officers who are strictly dedicated to looking for impaired drivers, Fittery said.
In 2010 and 2011, North Augusta Public Safety Officer Jason Pearce was recognized by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety and named “Officer of the Year” in agencies similar in size to North Augusta for his work in enforcing the state’s DUI laws and removing impaired drivers from the roadways.
Each of those years, Pearce himself made more than 70 DUI arrests.
Those were outstanding numbers for North Augusta, because in the same category this year, a patrolman in the Lexington (S.C.) Police Department was named 2017 Officer of the Year with a total of 56 DUI arrests.
“I know when we were actually running the H.E.A.T. grant, we were up in the 300s for DUI arrests that year because their sole job function was to go out, stop vehicles and look for impaired drivers,” Fittery said. “In fact, we just applied for another grant similar to that for DUI officers, and we are waiting to hear back to see if we have been awarded that grant.”
Such a grant would definitely increase the number of officers concentrating on DUI offenses in North Augusta, he said.
“We have our fingers crossed because, not only did we get more impaired drivers off the streets, but it also lowered our traffic collision numbers, too,” Fittery said. “So just having those extra guys on the roadways was really helpful.”
Even with North Augusta Public Safety averaging around 150 DUI arrests each year, it is clearly an agency in South Carolina that makes DUI enforcement a top priority.
In comparison, the Lexington (S.C.) Police Department, which was named 2017 Agency of the Year among agencies similar in size to North Augusta by the S.C. Department of Public Safety, had 200 DUI arrests last year.
A much larger agency, the Myrtle Beach Police Department, was recognized in its division with 364 DUI arrests in 2017.
With 331 drunken driving deaths in South Carolina in 2016, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) recently announced that 33 percent of all traffic fatalities in the state were drunken driving related.
USA Today also published an article in 2016 stating that South Carolina ranked fifth overall in the country for dangers on the roadways associated with DUIs.
The newspaper stated South Carolina was missing out on some penalties that are common in other states, such as “a mandatory BAC test for surviving drivers, interlock devices for first-time DUI convicts and greater penalties for sobriety test refusal.”
However, South Carolina has been trying to improve its DUI enforcement over the past decade.
In 2014, the General Assembly enacted Emma’s Law, which is meant to require DUI offenders convicted of having a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or higher — even if the person is a first-time offender — to use an Ignition Interlock Device.
This particular device hooks up to an offender’s ignition and requires the driver to pass an alcohol breathalyzer test before the vehicle will start.
Emma’s Law was named after 6-year-old Emma Longstreet of Lexington, S.C., who was killed by a drunken driver on New Year’s Day in 2012.
Emma died instantly after a repeat DUI offender, who had been drinking all night, slammed into her family’s van on their way to church that Sunday morning.
The 28-year-old drunken driver, Billy Patrick Hutto Jr., was sentenced to nine years in prison for the fatal crash.
Unfortunately, critics are claiming that Emma’s Law is frequently being undermined in the state’s court system.
A 2017 MADD report on South Carolina’s DUI arrests and prosecutions found that a growing number of DUI plea deals in the state are allowing offenders to get out of the Ignition Interlock Device requirement.
“South Carolina makes the arrest, investigation and prosecution of DUI cases far too difficult,” the 2017 MADD report stated. “National MADD Court Monitoring data suggests that South Carolina has a lower conviction rate than the national average.”
However, the MADD report also stated that law enforcement officers across the state are trying to enforce the current laws on the books whenever possible.
“Regardless of the outcome of the criminal case, officers are doing the right thing when they arrest someone they believe is impaired and get them off the road,” the MADD report stated. “They could be saving lives.”
As far as North Augusta Public Safety’s traffic citation and arrest record, Fittery is proud to acknowledge that his traffic division keeps a watchful eye on its close-knit community to make sure its roadways remain safe.
“I would have to tip my hat to our director of public safety, Chief John Thomas, and our command staff for providing the citizens with a very strong traffic enforcement team here in the City of North Augusta,” Fittery said. “I think we have a very good reputation for law enforcement.”
People throughout South Carolina and Georgia know that North Augusta Public Safety expects visitors and residents to respect the community and abide by its laws, he said.
“I know people say we are a speed trap and things like that, but we have the reputation of, if you come over here and break the law in a motor vehicle, you are going to get stopped and you are going to be dealt with either with a citation or a warning that is possibly going to curb that behavior,” Fittery said. “People know our reputation.”
While North Augusta Public Safety issued 8,261 traffic citations last year, the department has a consistent record of having at least that many citations each year.
In fact, while there was a slight drop in 2016 with a total of 7,933 traffic citations being issued, North Augusta typically issues more than 8,000 citations each year.
For example, there were 8,809 traffic citations issued in 2015; 8,785 citations in 2014; 8,780 citations in 2013; and 8,698 citations in 2012.
That averages to about 23 traffic citations each day of any given year.
As for traffic warnings, the numbers vary each year.
In 2017, the department issued 3,375 traffic warnings; while a total of 2,877 warnings were recorded in 2016. In 2015, there were 4,633 traffic warnings and, in 2014, there were 4,620 warnings.
But in 2013, there were 6,607 traffic warnings and a whopping 7,035 warnings in 2012.
Clearly, North Augusta Public Safety is vigilant when it comes to its traffic division.
“I think it’s great to have that reputation because that helps not only with preventing traffic collisions and helping people’s lives being saved, but it also helps deter crime, too,” Fittery said. “Because, let’s face it, 99 percent of crime, you have to drive a car to get there. A lot of times, we can catch people before a crime even happens just by a simple traffic stop for not using a turn signal or not staying in their lane. It’s about crime prevention.”
However, North Augusta Public Safety is also there to make sure that the ball games are fun and safe for everyone, he said.
In fact, Fittery insisted he can’t stress enough the importance of those attending the games to plan ahead, especially arranging for a designated driver if they’re looking to drink more than a beer.
“When it comes to the stadium, just inform yourself about what’s available. I would recommend that the people use the websites regarding the ballpark,” he said. “I know it is new and people are trying to figure it all out, but there are some websites out there with parking information that some people just aren’t using. Instead, they are relying on us, as public safety officers, to tell them where to go and how to get there.”
That’s difficult for the officers, especially at the beginning of games, because everyone is arriving around the same time, Fittery said.
“The worst thing that we’ve had throughout the whole thing is getting people into the stadium. That has been the hardest thing for us,” he said. “People are just not sure how to navigate through the city yet, but if they could just take a little time and educate themselves about the parking lots and the city, they will enjoy the experience even more.”
In fact, those attending the game can pre-purchase their parking lot tickets via the GreenJackets website.
Patrons of the SPR Park also should take advantage of the city’s two new trolleys or the golf cart shuttles that are now available to take them from a distant parking lot to the ballpark, Fittery said.
But patrons to the SRP Park this season should expect to see a definite police presence in North Augusta during the games to help ensure that the events run smoothly and the streets remain safe, Fittery said.
“The games definitely change our approach to traffic enforcement,” Fittery said. “I will say, on the bigger games like the Thursday, Friday and Saturday ball games, you will see a bigger police presence than you would see a Monday or a Tuesday game. We will work those bigger games a lot more than the ones that are earlier during the week. So, we’ll definitely be there.”
The following are helpful websites that provide information about parking at the SRP Park:
The Official Site of the Augusta GreenJackets:
The City of North Augusta’s parking map:
Info on the Augusta GreenJackets seating: