Rumble strips cause tumbles for Bluffton bike riders on SC 46

astice@islandpacket.comSeptember 25, 2012 

Avid cyclists say S.C. 46 used to be a popular road for a ride, with its overhanging oaks and direct route to destinations such as Old Town Bluffton and Palmetto Bluff.

That all changed when a heavy-duty rumble strip was installed last spring, shrinking the shoulder cyclists used.

Since then, local cycling advocates say several experienced riders have crashed while trying to avoid debris or overgrowth on the narrow shoulder, taking a spill when their tires hit the deep grooves of the rumble strip.

Now, groups such as the Palmetto Cycling Coalition are seeking more input with the S.C. Department of Transportation before rumble strips are placed to prevent future mishaps.

Al Olivetti, who leads local groups on bike rides, said he couldn't ride for several weeks after taking a tumble on the S.C. 46 shoulder earlier this month.

A pile of Spanish moss in his path gave him two options: hit the moss, which might be hiding other debris, or ride over the teeth-chattering rumble strip, placed to warn cars when they're veering off the road.

"I couldn't go to the left because the rumble strip has no breaks or to the right, which was dirt and wetlands," said Olivetti, who operates a triathlon store, On On Tri, on Hilton Head Island. "Underneath the moss was a big oak branch I couldn't get around. I was pretty beat up."

Olivetti had scrapes and cuts that left his skin raw; other riders have suffered more serious injuries.

Deb McGann, who has participated in the Sun City Cyclers group, has ridden in locations as varied as her native New York City and rural, rocky Zambia. On Sept. 2, she was riding on S.C. 46 near the S.C. 170 traffic circle when a car passed close by, forcing her into the rumble strip and knocking her off her bike.

She fractured ribs and recently had surgery to insert plates and screws. She has about four more weeks of recovery before she can ride again, and it's tough for the active Sun City resident to sit still.

"I've never seen grooves like that before, other than a major highway," McGann said of the strip. "I think they even ought to place a 'No Cycling' sign." Olivetti, McGann and other bikers say they don't oppose rumble strips under certain conditions. The strip on S.C. 46, however, causes a problem because it is wide -- 16 inches -- with deep grooves and no gaps of smooth pavement.

Another option for rumble strips is a skip pattern so cyclists could weave in and out if they needed to avoid cars or debris, said Palmetto Cycling Coalition executive director Amy Johnson. A third choice are raised, thermoplastic markings, like the plastic bumps on parts of Hilton Head Island's Gumtree Road, according to Frank Babel, founder of the island cycling advocacy group Squeaky Wheels.

Rumble strips with skip patterns and thermoplastic markings are sometimes used by DOT, but S.C. 46 fit the department's criteria for the milled-in rumble strip, said Michael Black, DOT district maintenance engineer.

In South Carolina, running off the road accounts for nearly 60 percent of all fatal crashes, according to the department's engineering guidelines.

The engineering guidelines state that rumble strips should be placed on shoulders of roads that are classified as rural, with average daily traffic of at least 500 vehicles and a 45 mph speed limit. The wide, milled-in rumble strips, like those on S.C. 46, are to be used on roads with a shoulder of four feet or wider. Roads with narrower shoulders can be fitted with rumble strips with skip patterns or plastic markings, the guidelines say.

Rumble strips, however, are not placed on roads that are part of the statewide bicycle touring route. Though S.C. 46 was popular, it isn't part of that route.

Nonetheless, Bluffton cycling advocate Karen Heitman said it was "really upsetting" that bikers weren't consulted or warned that when the rumble strip was installed in May.

Black said the DOT consulted cyclists when creating guidelines for when and where rumble strips should be applied.

Johnson said the Palmetto Cycling Coalition is talking with the DOT about giving cyclists more say in where rumble strips are placed -- and what kind.

"When rumble strips are misapplied, it creates an unsafe condition for a bicyclist, and DOT is responsible for the safety of everyone who uses the road," she said.

Related content

  1. Bluffton bike rider in serious condition after Sunday hit-and-run, Sept. 11, 2012
  2. Cyclists see fewer bike vs. car wrecks reported on Hilton Head, Aug. 21, 2012
  3. Easy riders - Hilton Head adds more bike paths, May 22, 2012

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