Hilton Head loves its dark nights. But is it killing bicyclists and pedestrians?

Driving Coligny Circle at night

Hilton Head Island doesn't have a lot of lights. For motorists, this means cyclists and pedestrians can be hard to spot. For this video, reporters Erin Heffernan and Kelly Meyerhofer drove around one of the Island's most tourist-filled destination
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Hilton Head Island doesn't have a lot of lights. For motorists, this means cyclists and pedestrians can be hard to spot. For this video, reporters Erin Heffernan and Kelly Meyerhofer drove around one of the Island's most tourist-filled destination

By the time he saw him, it was too late.

Kahn Sejour, then 28, was driving on Joe Frazier Road in northern Beaufort County the night of Oct. 4, 2012, on the way to dinner with his wife.

A Marine veteran and local firefighter, Sejour moved to the area in 2006 and had driven that road many times before.

It was around 10 p.m. and dark, but Sejour saw an oncoming car and flicked off his brights.

Moments later, he struck and killed 70-year-old pedestrian Jimmie Wilson with his car.

“It happened just like that,” Sejour recalled, snapping his fingers.

Wilson, of Burton, was wearing dark clothing and walking on the two-lane road against traffic, according to an S.C. Highway Patrol report.

Sejour still runs through the scenarios in his head, more than four years after the accident.

If he had swerved off the road to avoid the pedestrian, he would have hit a tree.

If he had veered into the neighboring lane, he might have struck an oncoming car, possibly killing his wife sitting next to him in the passenger’s seat.

“What could I have done better?” said Sejour, who was not charged, in a recent interview. “I did everything right in the eyes of the law.”

But there was one thing that Sejour believes might have saved Wilson’s life: lighting.

An analysis by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found that 78 percent of Beaufort County’s cyclist and pedestrian fatalities from 2006 through 2016 occurred at night — mostly on dark, unlit roads.

Yet on Hilton Head Island, many residents are protective of the area’s low-lighting ambiance, though critics say lives could be saved if parts of the island were better lit. In contrast, the Town of Bluffton and the City of Beaufort have made strides in recent years to improve street lighting. Still, many believe that walkers and cyclists should shoulder most of the responsibility for their own safety on the dark roads.

Death at night

Wilson’s death was one of 40 bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities at night in Beaufort County from 2006 through 2016, according to S.C. Department of Public Safety data. Eleven deaths during the period occurred in daytime.

Beaufort County’s nighttime fatality rate over the 11-year period was higher than state and national trends: 78 percent in the county compared to 66 percent statewide and 48 percent nationally, the data shows.

Although more total pedestrian and bicycle collisions in Beaufort County over the past 11 years occurred during the day, the fatality rate was dramatically higher at night, Department of Public Safety data shows. A bike or pedestrian crash in Beaufort County at night was nearly six times as likely to be fatal than a collision during the day, according to the data.

Still many densely populated areas of the county remain unlit, the newspapers’ analysis found, though road lighting is known to reduce the risk of collisions, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation report.

Dark island

Of the 28 fatal bicycle and pedestrian wrecks on Hilton Head Island from 2000 through 2016, 20 happened on a dark road at night, federal transportation data shows.

Still, the island remains almost completely without streetlights.

“Historically, the town has desired to keep ambient lighting at night to a minimum,” said Darrin Shoemaker, Hilton Head’s traffic and transportation engineer. “We don’t really have roadway lighting, and I want to leave it at that.”

A common attitude among residents is that more lighting will change the natural look of Hilton Head. Many residents specifically moved to the island for the natural, undeveloped aesthetic that a lack of lighting creates, said town manager Steve Riley.

“Born and raised here and I don’t want street lights EVER on HHI!” one resident wrote in a recent Island Packet online survey about bicycle and pedestrian safety.

The survey showed that public opinion is still split on the issue of adding more lighting on the island.

Of the 1,407 responses, 668 people, or about 47.5 percent of the total, favored more lighting on the island, while 640 people, or about 45.5 percent, opposed it.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” longtime Hilton Head resident Ellie Lattman said in a recent interview with the newspapers. “We definitely need some help with the lighting situation because it’s getting downright scary.”

The top two town officials, however, were skeptical.

A lack of lighting encourages drivers to slow down and be cautious, Riley argued. And he questioned whether lighting alone would reduce collisions.

So did the town’s Mayor David Bennett.

“Was it just lighting that caused those accidents?” Bennett asked. “I can’t isolate darkness as the only problem there.”

However, three Town Council members — Marc Grant, Tom Lennox and David Ames — said they would support lighting on some parts of the island.

Grant said he has brought up the issue at least once in his five years on council, but no one seemed interested in taking it up.

Ames, who noted he remembers people walking along the side of U.S. 278 before bike paths were installed in the early 1970s, said the time has come to seriously consider lighting.

“I wouldn’t advocate putting street lights up along all of 278, but it does make sense to incorporate it in areas like Coligny and Shelter Cove,” he said.

Other Town Council members were more hesitant to show support but said the issue warranted a closer look.

“We don’t want to drastically change what makes Hilton Head so special,” said Councilwoman Kim Likins. “But (the topic of lighting) probably should be elevated to something we take a serious look at.”

What about the sea turtles?Many Hilton Head residents support limiting lighting on the island to protect the sea turtles who nest on Hilton Head’s beaches. Too much ambient light can deter female turtles from nesting and artificial lights sometimes disorient hatchlings, preventing them from reaching the ocean, experts say.But there are ways coastal communities can both have street lights and protect turtles, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Jenna Cormany.Street lighting can be dimmed, lowered, shielded or changed to a different color to lower the impact on turtles, Cormany said. Florida has undergone a statewide effort to install sea-turtle-friendly street lights, including lighting embedded into the roadway or red in color that provide drivers more visibility but were found not to impact turtle nesting.

Georgia resident Mike Wilson knows firsthand why lighting is important.

On Feb. 14, 2014, Wilson and his wife were cycling back to their timeshare from the Coligny area around 9 p.m. when they came across the body of Joshua Hebenstreit, a pedestrian who was struck and killed by a motorist while walking home along Lagoon Road, according to a Highway Patrol report.

“There’s no lights or path on that road,” Wilson told the newspapers. “It was a place inviting disaster. Clearly, something needs to be done.”

Hebenstreit’s mother paid $250 to install a memorial sign that encourages safe driving. But the sign can be seen only in the daylight.

Failed lighting efforts

Adding street lights on Hilton Head Island has been proposed several times, often after a high-profile fatal collision. Yet past efforts quietly died in council chambers.

Lighting became a central issue with the Town Council in 2001 when police said then-Councilman Bill Ferguson’s 23-year-old nephew hit and killed a pedestrian in a nighttime car crash near U.S 278 and Palmetto Parkway on the island.

“My nephew said to me after the accident, ‘I just couldn’t see him. It was so dark,’ ” Ferguson told The Island Packet at the time.

Illuminating island intersections became one of Ferguson’s priorities as a councilman.

Town manager Riley said then that the island’s growing population and traffic meant it was probably time to move ahead with additional lights.

The council’s Public Safety Committee agreed, voting unanimously for town staff to prepare a survey of existing street lights, pedestrian crosswalks and pedestrian signals at all intersections.

A town Traffic Department report identified five “target areas” for improved lighting, as well as the entire section of Pope Avenue from New Orleans Road to Coligny Circle. The estimated cost of the lighting project was $850,000, according to town records.

But the issue never made it onto the council’s list of priorities for 2003, and the plan to add more lighting faded away.

Street lighting came up again in 2007 when a plan was formulated to install lighting on a section of Pope Avenue, from Cordillo Parkway to Coligny Circle, at a projected cost of about $90,000. The idea was scrapped, though, because “it didn’t fit with the town’s aesthetics,” Ed Drane, then-town urban designer, told the newspaper at the time.

Asked recently about the failed initiatives, Riley said, “If it didn’t make the priority list somewhere along the line, it wasn’t something we worked on.”

From 2000 to this year, the Town Council specifically mentioned bicycle-related improvements on just one year’s priority list, town records show. Even then, though, the priority — to seek designation as a bicycle-friendly community from the League of American Cyclists in 2011 — was sought more for marketing, rather than safety, purposes.

On almost every year’s priority list is some version of “living in harmony with nature” or “enhancing our natural beauty,” goals that some say stand in contrast to the idea of light installation.

Bluffton, Beaufort brighten up

While Hilton Head has stayed relatively in the dark, other densely populated areas of the county have gotten brighter.

Beaufort County added street lighting at signalized intersections along U.S. 278 up to Hilton Head between 2008 and 2010, county traffic engineer Colin Kinton said.

A before-and-after study comparing vehicle crash statistics found a 40 percent decrease in nighttime wrecks, he said.

In Beaufort, local government has long embraced the idea of lighting streets, going back as early as the 1990s, said city planning director Libby Anderson.

“The complaints we get more often is that it’s too dark,” she said.

Still, city officials are conscious of the Lowcountry aesthetic, she said.

During a Duke Street improvement project, the new lights were brighter than expected and, after receiving mixed reaction from residents, the wattage was reduced in the next phase of the project, Anderson said.

“A balance (between safety and aesthetics) can be achieved,” she said.

In Bluffton, the town has several active lighting projects designed to improve walkability, said Mayor Lisa Sulka.

“Our residents have asked for it,” she said.

Three of the top-20 priorities for the upcoming fiscal year, as outlined in the town’s strategic plan, are related to lighting:

▪  No. 9: Street light expansion

▪  No. 12: Pedestrian safety enhancements including lighted crosswalks in high traffic areas of Old Town

▪  No. 16: Old Town lighting

Asked about the number of complaints since Bluffton’s lighting campaign began, Sulka replied simply, “Not a one.”

Personal responsibility?

Critics of street lights point out the cost of installation and maintenance, and they often contend that more personal responsibility among walkers and cyclists could achieve the same results with less investment.

“I see too many pedestrians at night wearing all dark clothing,” one Bluffton respondent wrote in The Island Packet’s online survey. “Need to (get) out a campaign to wear white at night.”

Another person wrote: “You cannot see bikers at night. Need to require lights on bicycles.”

Bicycle lights are required by state law when riding at night. On the front of the bicycle, a lamp must emit white light visible from at least 500 feet. The back must have a red reflector visible from at least 50 feet.

Others say no one should bicycle on the island at night because of the danger.

“It really is not the place to even attempt to bike ride at night,” a survey respondent wrote.

But for some, it is not a choice.

Hilton Head Island resident Peter Watson, a cook at a Mexican restaurant on the island’s south end, commutes by bicycle to work. He told the newspapers he doesn’t have a driver’s license and that his shift often ends after sundown.

Along with the required lights on his bicycle, Watson said he also wears a headband light as an extra precaution on the dark streets. He sticks to the pathways and waits for lights at signalized crossings to indicate he has the right-of-way, he said.

Kickin’ Asphalt, a group actively promoting bicycle-safety awareness on the island, advises cyclists to wear bright colors and reflectors at night.

Frank Babel, one of the founding members of the group, said he carries a box of reflectors in his car to pass out to any cyclist without reflectors.

Service workers’ bicycles are often without reflectors, and their dark uniforms obscure visibility, he said. His organization is planning meetings with representatives of the hospitality industry to raise awareness about the issue.

Deadly memories

Four years after the Beaufort County accident that killed Jimmie Wilson, Kahn Sejour, the driver in the fatal crash, was visiting family in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. On an evening drive, he said he found himself in a similar situation — a pedestrian walking on the road in the dark — and was instantly reminded of the deadly October 2012 night.

The difference this time: street lights.

Because of the light, Sejour said he spotted the man in the street. With enough time to react, he moved into the next lane, he said.

The two passed each other and continued on their separate ways.

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh

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.

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