Roads in downtown Aiken: 'Circle-go, square-no'
You'll likely see it after just a few minutes of sitting and observing traffic patterns in downtown Aiken.
A motorist makes a left turn through a circular intersection and is met with a red light to the front – and blaring car horns from a line of frustrated drivers behind him.
For you out-of-towners, you may see a vehicle (or several) go straight through a red light at an intersection or make a left turn at another red light.
“The locals just know how to maneuver around that,” said Aiken historian Owen Clary. “Most anywhere downtown, you can make a left turn on a red light, which is most unusual.”
In December, a Durham woman was cited for failure to yield the right-of-way after her vehicle stuck the driver's side of another vehicle at the intersection of Richland Avenue and York Street, according to the Aiken Department of Public Safety. She told officers she “didn't know how to drive on the roads in Aiken,” and that she didn't see the victim's vehicle coming and tried to go through the traffic light.
Some historical perspective
One of Aiken's unique features is its layout of one-way streets and parkways in downtown, which is the result of the construction of the first major passenger railroad line built in the United States in the early 19th century, according to Clary.
“They laid out the route of the railroad that came through the middle of town,” Clary said. “They sort of patterned it on the right-angle streets laid out in the town of Summerville, which was the first of two railroad towns along the railroad. The tracks ran down the middle of most of these streets, and the city was laid out in right angles to the tracks.”
The roads in downtown were laid out in the 1830s, when the railroad was constructed through Aiken. It's not known when the streets became one-way, but Clary said original maps of the streets by the engineers do not indicate one-way streets. Many streets in the downtown area were left unpaved as late as the 1940s and 1950s to accommodate the horse traffic.
Unfamiliarity not frequent
Detective Jeremy Hembree, a spokesman for Aiken Public Safety, said the agency responds to collisions caused by people unfamiliar with the roadway setup downtown, but it's not a frequent occurrence.
“We do have them, but ultimately that's not the contributing factor to many of our collisions,” he said. “Being unfamiliar with the roadways may be part of it, but it's not the main factor ...”
The department doesn't get complaints about the traffic patterns, but it does receive inquiries from motorists who want to make sure they're driving correctly.
Richland Avenue and York Street, or U.S. 78 and U.S. 1, is one of the city's busiest intersections, Hembree said.
“We do see an increase in the amount of collisions there versus some of the other downtown streets,” he said. “But it's also where two major roads for the entire city meet.”
As for the motorists going through red lights in some intersections or making left turns on others, Hembree said they're doing nothing wrong.
“The way to treat every intersection in downtown Aiken is, if you come to a red light, you want to go with the flow of traffic … like a right turn on red, you can make a left turn on red on the one-way in the downtown area, unless there's a sign stating no turn on red,” he said. “If it's a square intersection and you're facing a red light, you cannot go through it; however, you can make a right turn on red or a left turn on red and go with the flow of traffic that has a green light.”
There are some intersections, specifically the circular ones at the intersections of Richland Avenue and Laurens Street, Richland Avenue and York Street, and Laurens Street and Park Avenue, where it is permissible to go straight through a red light.
“If you make a left turn on that and you're facing the red, you can continue through the red light as long as traffic going across you is clear,” Hembree said.
Aiken Public Safety uses the “circle-go, square-no” example when explaining to motorists when it's OK to go straight through a red light. When in doubt, Hembree said it's best to just wait for the light to turn green.
“If you're unsure, you're not hurting anything by waiting,” he said. “It may frustrate the driver behind you, but we'd rather you wait and be safe and continue on a green light than to be unsure, go through an intersection and have a traffic collision.”
Impatient drivers beware: Even if it is legal to proceed through a red light, it's illegal to pass someone who's playing it safe and waiting at an intersection.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.
Editor's note: This version of this story has been updated to correct the spelling of Owen Clary's name. The Aiken Standard regrets the error.