There is one topic that creates more heated arguments on bike safety in Beaufort County than any other: bicyclists who ride on the road.
Cyclists have a legal right to ride on the road, even when there are recreational paths available. But that’s a fact many local motorists find frustrating in practice, cyclists and drivers say.
On Hilton Head Island, for example, with more than 100 miles of leisure paths on the island, some drivers say they don’t understand why cyclists must ride on the road.
The results: heated online battles and confrontations on the street between cyclists and drivers.
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“I wish they would respect motorists by staying on the bike paths when they’re there for them,” said Hilton Head resident Charles Dimmock. “Sometimes they veer into the road and cause a lot of congestion. It’s also dangerous.”
But cyclists argue riding on the road is actually the safer option.
Pat Bellock, 66, of Hilton Head Island, rides her bicycle more than 100 miles a week. She said she rides on the road because the leisure paths on Hilton Head are typically full of families, parents with strollers, and tourists on rented bicycles.
“When you’re going 15, 20 miles an hour, you scare the hell out of these people,” Bellock said. “Plus those lanes have a speed limit. You’re not allowed to go as fast as our bikes go there. That’s why we call them leisure paths, not bike paths.”
But Bellock also said that, when she rides on the road, she gets abuse from drivers.
“I’ve been yelled at, ‘Get off the road!’ People will intentionally swerve close to you,” she said. “There’s just a lot of aggression, and I don’t know where it comes from.”
Maria Ireland, a road bicyclist who works at Bluffton Bike Shop, describes the decision of whether to ride on the road or on a leisure path as a “lose-lose” proposition for higher-speed cyclists.
“People will yell at you in the paths, and people will yell at you for riding in the road,” she said. “You can’t win.”
Ireland believes drivers need more patience when they see a cyclist.
Still, bicyclists need to follow road laws more closely, said Nicholas Felix, a cyclist and Hilton Head attorney who often represents cyclists in personal injury cases.
“We do need to be better stewards of our own sport,” he said. “I regularly hear cyclists complain about vehicles, but we need to be following traffic laws more, too. We have the same laws as a driver. Drivers just need to remember that, when they get aggressive, we’re on a bike and they’re in a 3,000-pound vehicle.”
People will yell at you in the paths, and people will yell at you for riding in the road. You can’t win.
Maria Ireland, road cyclist and Bluffton Bike Shop employee
S.C. Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Matthew Southern said both motorists and bicyclists often have a lack of awareness about laws regarding sharing the road.
South Carolina law says:
▪ Cyclists are legally permitted to ride on the roadway, even when there is a recreational bike path along the same road. But cyclists must also follow the same traffic laws as drivers. That means they have to ride in the same direction as traffic and stop at lights and stop signs.
▪ It is generally illegal for cyclists to ride in large groups on the roadway. They are limited to riding no more than two abreast on the road.
▪ Cyclists are legally required to ride as close to the right side of the roadway as is practicable. But drivers must also maintain a safe operating distance from the bikes. Swerving close to a cyclist to send a message is against the law.
▪ It’s also illegal for drivers to harass, taunt or throw an object at bicyclists. That crime is a misdemeanor punishable by a minimum $250 fine or up to 30 days in jail, or both.
▪ A bicycle must be visible at night, both from the front and back. The front of the bike must have a white light visible from at least 500 feet. The rear must have a red reflector visible from at least 50 feet.
In practice, there needs to be more understanding and caution on both the part of bicyclists and motorists, Southern said.
“Drivers need to know that cyclists have that right to be there,” he said. “But cyclists should realize you’re slower moving than most vehicles, so ride to the right so you give drivers ample space to pass you.
“Everybody really does need to share road. There’s no way around it.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
An investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found 2016 to be the most dangerous and deadly year for bicyclists and pedestrians in Beaufort County in a decade.
The papers 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 for this series: drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, law enforcement, town and county officials, bicycle lawyers, bike shop owners, tourists, and family members of deceased victims.