We don’t want to see another 2016.
A three-month investigation by our staff writers Erin Heffernan and Kelly Meyerhofer found 2016 to be the most dangerous and deadly year for bicyclists and pedestrians in Beaufort County in a decade.
We had 11 fatalities last year — six bicyclists and five pedestrians.
To give it some perspective, Hilton Head Island has more than 100 miles of public bicycle and walking paths, which can be busy with active locals and the 2.6 million visitors who came last year.
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Many people find Beaufort County to be a perfect place for bicycling because it is flat and the weather is good. That helps this community capitalize on its beauty, and attract people with active lifestyles.
Hilton Head has become one of the top 25 bicycle-friendly communities in the United States, having earned the Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community designation from the League of American Bicyclists.
And our research showed that bicycling now tops the TripAdvisor list of things to do on Hilton Head. More than 20,000 bike rentals per year take place on the island. And the Hilton Head Rotary Club chose the placement of 50 bike-path signs noting facts of interest about the community as the signature project for its 50th anniversary.
If all of that has not sunk in with public policymakers, public safety officials, tourism leaders and business owners, maybe the glaring accident numbers of 2016 will.
The numbers say that the days of considering bicycling a frill, or an extra, in this county are long gone. No longer should we hear people say: “You can spend millions on bike paths, but not on X, Y, or Z” as if it were money frittered away. Beaufort and Hilton Head Island have made huge public and private investments in bicycling, and bicycling has become a pillar of the economy and culture.
To that end, we need a serious discussion of what more can be done to improve safety and encourage more bicycling and walking.
It’s not as if we are starting from scratch. The Town of Hilton Head Island has done much to improve crosswalks at major intersections. The town has a community Bicycle Advisory Committee that advocates for safety as much improvements to the pathway network.
And it’s not as easy as saying, “Add more lights.” Our research showed that bicyclists and pedestrians are killed after dark in this county at a higher rate than statewide or nationally.
Hilton Head’s tight control over lighting is an easy target, but it should not be. The community’s bread and butter is the purposeful lack of garish lighting, billboards and parking lots and its investment in the beauty of landscaping, tree-protection and roadside natural buffer zones. Under no circumstances should the community abandon these signature assets and principles.
But improved lighting in key places has been talked about in years past, and it should be discussed again in terms of the growing imperative to protect bicyclists and pedestrians. Mandatory use of helmets would help. So would public education.
Personal responsibility by cyclists, pedestrians and motorists would likely produce better results than street lights, but that is much harder to achieve. In the end, we must watch out from each other, because we don’t want to see another 2016.