Hilton Head officials: Road changes wouldn't have prevented hit-and-run death

dburley@islandpacket.comJune 2, 2014 

Flowers sit on the shoulder of Lagoon Road near its intersection with Bittern Street on June 2, 2014. Twenty-eight-year-old Joshua Hebenstreit was struck by a car and killed near here in February while walking home from a nearby store.

JAY KARR — Staf fphoto Buy Photo

Safety improvements being considered for a Hilton Head Island road likely would not have prevented a hit-and-run accident that killed a 28-year-old man there on Valentine's Day, a town panel concluded Monday.

The Public Safety Committee won't recommend painted edge lines, sidewalk additions or a lower speed limit on Lagoon Road, a half-mile street off Pope Avenue where resident Joshua Hebenstreit was struck and killed in February. Instead, the panel suggested smaller improvements, including speed-limit signs and reflective markings.

Hebenstreit was hit by a minivan at about 9 p.m. near the intersection of Lagoon and Bittern Street, around the corner from his mother's home on Dove Street. He was walking in the road when he was hit, according to an April report by the S.C. Highway Patrol.

Town traffic engineer Darrin Shoemaker said some of the suggested road changes, including painting edge lines, "might improve motorists' view of the roadway, but I'm not sure it'd make a difference with regard to the fatality."

Councilman Marc Grant, committee chairman, asked whether widening the road would protect pedestrians.

Shoemaker said there is already a "clear shoulder area."

Hebenstreit "wasn't necessarily forced out into the roadway," Shoemaker said, citing the Highway Patrol report.

Several residents advocated lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25 mph at the Avocet Road intersection, where the street turns residential.

Councilman John McCann said a reduced speed limit could create inconsistency throughout the island.

"I think it'd be wrong to have some blocks 25 (mph), and some blocks 30 (mph)," he said.

The panel, however, agreed to install two speed-limit signs on the eastbound side of the road. They also called for reflective markings in the center of the road and a sign that tells pedestrians to use North Forest Beach Drive, a street southeast of Lagoon that has sidewalks and pathways. The committee voted 3-0, moving the recommendations to Town Council for a vote.

After the meeting, Grant said he wants more information from the Highway Patrol before ruling out broader safety improvements.

"I still want to know more about what happened," he said. "Was this really something that could have been avoided?"

On the night of the hit-and-run, Hebenstreit was walking home after buying a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store on Lagoon Road, his mother, Terry Hebenstreit, said.

The minivan that hit Hebenstreit was moving at 25 mph at the time of the accident, the Highway Patrol concluded.

The minivan's driver, Katie Byam of Bluffton, was not at fault, the report said.

Byam, 32, called the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office the morning after the accident to report that a branch fell on her 2004 Toyota Sienna while she was driving on Lagoon Road in North Forest Beach, Lt. Col. Bill Neill said. Deputies found damage on the right side of her minivan and on the right side of the windshield, which was pushed inward.

They alerted Highway Patrol investigators working Hebenstreit's death. Debris at the crash site was matched to Byam's minivan and she was arrested, according to Senior Trooper Hannah Wimberly.

She did not know whether alcohol was a factor in the accident because Byam was arrested more than a day after the hit-and-run.

Byam has been charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death and driving under a suspended license. Her case is pending, according to Beaufort County court records.

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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