They almost skipped their annual trip to Hilton Head Island.
Hurricane Matthew forced many of the island’s golf courses to be closed. But Boston resident Cathy Cordero did some research and found a few operating again, just in time for the early November trip she and her fiance, Jack Martin, planned.
So they came.
They golfed. They visited consignment stores. They ate at a Greek restaurant, throwing around the idea of Greece as their next vacation destination.
Cordero said that, on the third day of their trip, her fiance went for an afternoon bike ride alone.
Two hours later, she was crying in the Marriott hotel parking lot as the Highway Patrol delivered her the grim news: A motorist had hit Martin near Shelter Cove.
She flew home to Boston, her fiance’s ashes in a wooden box on her lap.
Martin was among four cyclist fatalities on Hilton Head since last August. In the previous 16 years on the island, there were six cyclist deaths total, according to federal transportation data.
And more bicycle-involved collisions on the island were reported in 2016 than in any other calendar year going back 10 years, said town of Hilton Head traffic engineer Darrin Shoemaker.
The uptick in bicycle-involved collisions and fatalities raises questions about whether the island’s safety standards holds up to its growing reputation as a cycling destination.
A cycling destination
In 2012, Hilton Head’s bike trails didn’t make the list of things to do on TripAdvisor, the ever-popular website tourists flock to for advice on attractions.
Sometime in 2013 — August, according to the Wayback Machine, which archives changes to websites — bike trails joined the list at No. 28 of 58 things to do on the island.
By October of that year, bike trails jumped to No. 1.
And they’ve been there ever since.
Year after year, more pathways are created; more bike racks are installed; and more bicycle shops open up for business. Today, there are more than 100 miles of bicycle and walking paths on the island.
Almost 50 percent of visitors who vacationed on Hilton Head in the past 18 months rented a bike, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the University of South Carolina Beaufort Resort Tourism Institute.
And it’s not just tourists lured to Hilton Head for bicycling. Many potential Hilton Head transplants also are drawn to the island for its cycling amenities.
But there isn’t enough awareness of the safety risks, some say.
“For a locale that prides itself on being friendly to bicycling, greater awareness of the issue and efforts to change the dynamic are imperative ... not only from the public safety perspective, but for the tourist dollars that Hilton Head so heavily relies on,” said Patti Stanford, Martin’s sister. Stanford lives in Jacksonville, Fla., and said she visited the island at least five times before his death.
Another tourist, Canadian resident Eveline Gurnham, filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging a Sea Pines resident hit her with his car while she was cycling in the resort community in mid-November.
Gurnham said she had the right-of-way in a pedestrian crosswalk when the motorist struck her at the intersection of Heritage Road and Plantation Drive, according to court records.
Members of the Hilton Head Island Town Council say more needs to be done.
“We have to be realistic about the fact that our island population and visitor population have grown significantly,” Councilwoman Kim Likins said. “Combine that with the fact that we encourage alternative transportation like walking and biking, which means we need to consider what needs to be done for safety.”
No gold safety medals
In 2015, the Town of Hilton Head earned a gold-level designation from the League of American Cyclists as a “bicycle-friendly” community — the only community in the Southeast to win the distinction.
“We pride ourselves as a biking community,” said Bill Harkins, a member of the Town Council. “We’re very proud of the gold-level designation.”
The town, however, falls short in the “safety measures” category of its annual application.
The island’s annual crash rate falls in the middle of the pack among gold-level communities, according to the organization’s most recent report card from 2015. Hilton Head’s fatality rate was the 17th worst among the 20 gold-level communities for which data was available.
Some Hilton Head bicycling advocates dispute the organization’s statistics, saying the League’s numbers rely on bicycling commuters, not tourists.
Shoemaker, Hilton Head’s traffic engineer, said the island’s gold-level designation increases the number of cyclists on the island, which also means an increased opportunity for collisions.
“We are a victim of our own success in that regard,” he said.
It’s a success that some say demands reform.
“If you’re going to derive benefit from being known as a bike destination, then wouldn’t it make sense that you would bear the responsibility of making it safe?” asked Cordero, the fiance of the bicycling tourist killed last November.
Martin, the cyclist, was not found at fault, according to the Highway Patrol report.
The report found the driver to be driving too fast for conditions. Court records show he hasn’t been charged.
The Boston couple often bicycled wherever they traveled, including Los Angeles, Miami and Texas — all places that Cordero said were far less known for cycling.
“It shouldn’t have been that hard to ride a bike safely on Hilton Head,” she said.
Tourists on bikes
Every Saturday afternoon like clockwork, a new rotation of tourists arrives on Hilton Head Island who must navigate unfamiliar terrain and learn laws that may differ from their home states.
In 2016, there were more than 2.6 million visitors to the area, according to the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute, which is affiliated with the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Do I think they’re aware? I think they’re on vacation.
Bill Fink, owner of Bicycle Billy bike shop
Some locals say visitors need to be better informed of South Carolina’s bicycle laws.
“Maybe if they rent a bike, they should have to read a manual,” suggested island resident Jamie Curran.
Bill Fink, owner of Bicycle Billy, an island bike shop on Pope Avenue said he used to pass out safety sheets but phased it out.
“It’s pretty difficult to get them to read something like that on vacation,” he said.
For other tourists, getting back on a bicycle for the first time in years proves more problematic.
“I hear, ‘Oh, I haven’t ridden a bike in 20 years,’ from customers almost every day,” Fink said.
And yet many visitors hit the paths without helmets.
South Carolina is one of 13 states that lacks a mandatory bicycle helmet law, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.
Most island bicycle shops offer helmets for an additional cost, but it’s an add-on few customers are willing to tack on to their rental bill, area shop owners said.
Paul Levy, manager of The Bike Doctor Hilton Head, estimated about 30 percent of customers pay the $5 extra for a helmet. Rich Sandquist said it’s about 20 percent at his Hilton Head Bicycle Company.
Hotel bike rental programs include helmets, but clients have the option to decline them.
Besides typically not wearing helmets, bicyclists also often ignore stop signs on the island and other road laws, locals and town officials say.
“Do I think (tourists) are aware?” Fink asked. “I think they’re on vacation.”
Hilton Head Island to host first-ever Southeast Biking Symposium
The Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau will host the Southeast Biking Symposium later this month to “raise awareness about the importance of biking in our community for tourism, for economic development and for our residents,” said Frank Babel, one of the event organizers.
When: March 23-25
Where: The Beach House, 1 South Forest Beach Drive
Cost: $90 (includes some meals, bike rental, keynote sessions, bike rides and more)
To register: hiltonheadisland.org/southeastbike
About this series
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette requested bike and pedestrian collision data from the S.C. Department of Highway Safety through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
All together, reporters analyzed close to 7,000 fields of information related to every Beaufort County bicycle and pedestrian collision from 2006 through 2016. In addition, more than 55 people were interviewed over three months on road safety issues in the county.
In case you missed it: Part One, addressing commonly cited causes for cyclist and pedestrian deaths, can be found here.