Beaufort County just had its worst year in a decade for bicycle and pedestrian safety.
More cyclists and walkers died in the county last year than in any of the previous 10 years, federal data shows. The 11 deaths in 2016 — six bicyclists and five pedestrians — were nearly triple the annual average of four fatalities from 2006 through 2015.
And it wasn’t just deadly wrecks that spiked. All fatal and non-fatal collisions in the county involving a bicycle or pedestrian increased by 53 percent last year compared to the previous 10-year average. The 72 collisions last year were up from a yearly average of 47 crashes in the previous decade, S.C. Department of Public Safety data shows.
The rate of fatal collisions in Beaufort County involving what law enforcement calls “vulnerable road users” is significantly higher than state and national trends, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found in an analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data.
The 51 bicyclist and pedestrian deaths in the county from 2006 through 2016 accounted for 25 percent of all county road fatalities, compared to 16 percent nationally and 15 percent statewide for the same period.
The lives lost in 2016, as reported by law enforcement, include:
▪ Hilton Head orthopedic surgeon and dedicated cyclist Jeff Garske, 66, who was killed in August in a collision with a reported drunken driver who swerved off the island’s Cross Island Parkway.
▪ Stanley Morton, a 45-year-old Marine Corps veteran, who was fatally struck in May by three vehicles while riding his bike in Okatie.
▪ Andrew Jenkins Jr., 62, of Beaufort, who was struck and killed in November as he attempted to walk across U.S. 21 at night.
▪ John Martin, 67, of Massachusetts, who was struck from behind and killed in November while cycling on vacation near Hilton Head’s Shelter Cove Towne Centre.
“These statistics are shocking and warrant some serious investigation as to why,” Patti Stanford, Martin’s sister, said about the spike in fatalities.
But the reasons behind the increase are unclear, law enforcement, members of the local cycling community and local government officials say.
“There wasn’t a clear pattern that I could see, and it’s hard tell whether it’s a bike and pedestrian problem or a driver problem,” said Lance Cpl. Matthew Southern, S.C. Highway Patrol spokesman. “What I will say is that we all have to share the roads together.”
Already in 2017, a 78-year-old woman, Deweese Weaver, of Hilton Head, was struck and killed Feb. 17 near Shelter Cove as she was walking her bicycle on a crosswalk, the Highway Patrol reported. It was the fourth bicyclist death on the island in less than a year. Just last week, the Highway Patrol reported another death after a Beaufort County EMS ambulance traveling on U.S. 278 struck and killed a pedestrian March 10 in Bluffton.
The uptick raises strong opinions on all sides about what needs to change to make the county’s roads safer to walk and bicycle. Yet many disagree on basic facts about the problem.
In examining some commonly held beliefs about road safety in the county, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette analyzed state Department of Public Safety collision data from 2006 through 2016. Here’s what we found:
Myth: It’s all the tourists’ fault.
Conventional wisdom holds that the swarms of tourists crowding the county in the summer are the top safety problem.
“They have no idea of the rules of the road,” one Hilton Head driver stated in an online survey conducted by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “Most people who live here ride bikes, walk and share the road safely, but those folks who are on a bike one week of the year are dangerous.”
But the reality is most bike and pedestrian collisions in the county are local drivers hitting other locals. About 85 percent of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists involved in collisions from 2006 through 2016 were county residents.
And of those who were not local, most hailed from South Carolina or coastal Georgia, not from the Midwest or Northeast.
The heart of the tourist season — June, July and August — also doesn’t account for as many bicycle and pedestrian collisions as some locals might expect.
The three summer months made up about 30 percent of bike and pedestrian collisions in the county. And while July has had the most collective collisions of any month over the past decade, more fatalities occurred in the fall.
“In the summer, when you have so many people, the bike shops are rented out,” said Frank Babel, a retiree who works with the town of Hilton Head on improving bicycle safety. “People tend to be defensive and pay attention. The more bikes you have, the safer it is. But in the off-season, drivers aren’t as cautious.”
Myth: Drunken drivers are the problem.
A lot of attention is paid to drunken drivers who hit pedestrians and bicyclists.
In one high-profile case last year, accused drunken driver Richard Alford, 64, ran off the Cross Island Parkway and struck and killed Hilton Head physician Jeff Garske, according to the Highway Patrol.
About a month after being let out on bond in connection with the death, Alford, of Hilton Head, was arrested again on a charge of driving under the influence, court records show. He remains in the Beaufort County Detention Center without bond on charges connected to both collisions.
“How about prosecuting the hell out of drunk drivers so they never get behind the wheel again?” one local survey respondent wrote when asked about the county’s biggest issues regarding sharing the roads.
But is Garske’s situation common?
Alcohol and drugs do play a large role in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities in the county, but it’s not always the driver who is impaired. At least one party was impaired in 45 percent of Beaufort County’s fatal cyclist and pedestrian wrecks from 2006 through 2016, according to federal data.
Of the 51 fatalities during the 11-year period, five drivers were legally intoxicated at the time of the crash, federal data shows. The number of drunken drivers could be understated, however, as there were some hit-and-run collisions in which the driver was not able to be tested for alcohol use.
More often, however, there were reported cases in which the bicyclist or pedestrian was found to be intoxicated. Federal records show that 14 pedestrians and six cyclists were impaired in the 51 fatal collisions.
Port Royal resident Eric Elsen took years to get over this type of fatal wreck, he told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
On the evening of Aug. 18, 2011, a drunken bicyclist swerved into Elsen’s truck on a rural road on St. Helena Island, according to a Highway Patrol report.
Elsen spent the rest of the night worrying he’d be jailed even though the cyclist swerved into his lane, he said.
“Even if I had the best car in the world that stopped the fastest, it wouldn’t have done anything,” Elsen said.
The 31-year-old cyclist, Robert Lee Byas Jr., of St. Helena Island, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.21 percent, according to the Highway Patrol report.
Byas had accumulated two previous charges related to public drunkenness in the two years leading up to his death, court records show. Less than a year before the crash that took his life, Byas pleaded guilty to a charge of walking as a pedestrian under the influence of alcohol or drugs on a highway.
Multiple attempts to reach the Byas family were unsuccessful.
Elsen was never charged.
Myth: It’s all on the drivers. Or it’s all on the cyclists.
Beaufort County residents often point fingers when it comes to road safety.
Some blame reckless motorists.
“The main fault falls on the shoulders of the drivers,” one survey respondent wrote. “They are driving lethal weapons. Drivers see one cyclist run a stop sign and suddenly ‘all’ cyclists are terrible people. What about drivers that don’t obey traffic laws? There are far more of them.”
Others say bicyclists are more often at fault.
“The majority of cyclists do not obey the traffic laws and put themselves in danger,” another survey respondent wrote.
But S.C. Department of Public Safety data shows that cyclists or pedestrians contribute to collisions at about an equal rate compared to motorists.
In each collision, the Highway Patrol determines whether each person involved contributed to the cause of crash. Common causes are failing to yield the right of way, traveling at night without lights, speeding in a vehicle or darting into traffic.
Of the 72 fatal and nonfatal collisions in 2016, the Highway Patrol concluded a total of 36 cyclists or pedestrians and 37 drivers contributed to the crashes.
In fatalities, however, the bicyclist or pedestrian is much more likely to be determined at fault. Since 2006, 37 cyclists and pedestrians have contributed to fatal crashes compared to six drivers, according to Highway Patrol records.
How police determine who is at fault in these cases isn’t always clear-cut, however, as only the motorist can be interviewed.
Consider the case of Joshua Hebenstreit, a 28-year-old Hilton Head resident walking home from a Coligny convenience store on the evening of Valentine’s Day in 2014.
The motorist, Katie Byam, 32 at the time, struck him from behind on Lagoon Road and fled the scene, the Highway Patrol reported. She called police the next day to report a tree limb fell on her Toyota Sienna the night before, according to the report.
It wasn’t Byam’s first traffic offense. In 2009, she pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and paid a $1,266 fine, court records show.
Byam pleaded guilty to the hit-and-run in connection with Hebenstreit’s death. She was sentenced to two years’ probation last August. If she does not violate probation, she will serve no jail time.
“She got away with murder,” Hebenstreit’s mother, Terry Hebenstreit, told the newspapers. “She didn’t just hit him. It was negligence. Gross negligence.”
Byam’s father told the newspapers that his daughter declined to comment for this story.
No sidewalk exists on the section of Lagoon Road where Hebenstreit was killed.
A pedestrian is determined to be improperly in the roadway unless walking on a crosswalk, pathway or sidewalk, Highway Patrol spokesman Southern said.
The Highway Patrol determined Hebenstreit to be improperly walking in the roadway, so the responding trooper circled “yes” on the collision report question of whether he contributed to the wreck.
Under Byam’s section of the report, for that same question, a different word was circled — “No.”
Who are the pedestrians and cyclists in Beaufort County wrecks?
- Pedestrians and cyclists involved in collisions in the county are much more likely to be males. There were 390 males and 146 females in wrecks from 2006 through 2016. The same holds true for fatal crashes. In that same period, 42 males died as pedestrians or cyclists in the county compared with nine females.
- Black people are overrepresented as pedestrians and cyclists struck in collisions. They made up about 40 percent of those struck over the past 11 years but account for about 19 percent of the county’s population.
- The median age of those struck is about 42, close to the median age in the county. In fatal wrecks, the cyclists and pedestrians trend older, with a median age of 47. The drivers involved in collisions tended to be younger, with a median age of 39.
Where are bike and pedestrian collisions happening most?
Hilton Head: The most significant hotspot for bicycle and pedestrian collisions on Hilton Head is the area around Mathews Drive at both intersections with Business U.S. 278.
On Hilton Head’s south end, New Orleans Road is a hotspot with 15 collisions from 2006 through 2016 near the road’s intersections with Arrow Road and Pope Avenue.
Bluffton: In Bluffton, the area of Simmonsville Road near U.S. 278 represented the biggest cluster of bicycle and pedestrian collisions.
Beaufort: In Beaufort, the biggest hotspot for collisions was Boundary Street, one of the most high-traffic areas in the city.
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 for this series: drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, law enforcement, town and county officials, bicycle lawyers, bike shop owners, tourists and family members of deceased victims.
The three-month investigation found 2016 to be the most dangerous and deadly year for bicyclists and pedestrians in Beaufort County in a decade.