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Cycling deaths prompt calls for safer S.C. roads

COLUMBIA -- The deaths of two experienced cyclists on a fundraising ride in Lancaster County could provide the impetus for pending legislation aimed at making the state's roads safer for cyclists.

But cycling enthusiasts say new laws alone would have little impact. What needs to change is perceptions those of people who drive, who plan and build roads, and who consider whether to ride bikes.

"We need to have a society that values pedestrians and bikes by making it easier to ride bikes or walk," said Peter Welborn, a Charleston attorney and cyclist.

Experienced cyclists Thomas Hoskins of Columbia and Lee Anne Barry of Waxhaw, N.C., died in a traffic accident in Lancaster County on Sunday during a fundraising ride. Publicity about their deaths could frighten more cyclists off the road or it could help reverse a trend.

For decades, roads were built almost exclusively to allow vehicles to get from one place to another as quickly as possible, Welborn said.

Walking and biking along those roads grew more risky, so fewer people walked or biked. Then drivers became less accustomed to driving around walkers and cyclists, making conditions even less safe.

"We're not just losing the ability for Lance (Armstrong) wannabes like me," Welborn said. "We're losing the ability for everyday people to see themselves on the pedals or in the saddle."

Tim Malson, owner of Summit Cycle Shop in Northeast Richland, was among Hoskins' legion of friends in the cycling community. He pledges to work to ensure positives arise from a tragic situation.

"I'm hoping this is a catalyst for people to stand up," Malson said. "We're constituents. We need protections on the road."

During the last legislative session, the Palmetto Cycling Coalition pushed for a number of changes in traffic regulations. The most notable change would require drivers to give a 5-foot side buffer when passing cyclists.

The House version (H.3006) made it out of committee late in the session but never came up for a floor vote. The Senate version (S.354) was stuck in committee.

Many states have similar bike passing laws, according to Natalie Cappuccio Britt, director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition.

"South Carolina laws are inadequate," Cappuccio Britt said. "The way it is now, there are very few fines or charges that can be applied when a cyclist is hit."

From 2001-2005, 100 cyclists died after being hit by vehicles in South Carolina. Citations were issued against the drivers in 28 cases, according to the cycling coalition. The average fine was less than $70.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese, a cyclist himself, acknowledged vehicle-cyclist collisions are "are very difficult cases to prosecute." The driver's actions have to move beyond an avoidable accident to reckless disregard, he said.

Prosecutors felt they had evidence of recklessness in the well-publicized Harry Sunshine case. Sunshine, a popular dentist in Columbia, died in a hit-and-run accident while cycling on Two Notch Road in 2000.

The evidence indicated the vehicle left its lane to hit Sunshine, and then fled. Tshona Gaymon pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and leaving the scene of a fatal accident and received a 20-year sentence.

In the accident that left Hoskins and Barry dead, the driver of the SUV has not been charged. The accident still is under investigation, according to the S.C. Highway Patrol.

Cycling enthusiasts are battling to improve conditions on several fronts. They conduct training sessions with law enforcement officers, helping them understand the cyclists' view. They organize safety campaigns, reminding cyclists to follow the rules of the road and to wear helmets. They remind city planners and highway builders to consider bike lanes.

There has been some progress. The S.C. Department of Transportation began staging an annual bike/pedestrian conference. Bike lanes or wide shoulders have been added to hundreds of miles of state roads.

A bike/pedestrian lane added to the Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston has been a huge hit and could be another catalyst for change.

"When people visit Charleston now, they want to go walk or cycle on the bridge," Welborn said. "If that's 5,000 more people who ride bikes, that's 5,000 more people who drive more safely around bikes."

Cycling safety

Tips for motorists and cyclists

Motorists

nReduce speed when encountering cyclists.

nWhen passing, allow at least 4 feet between vehicle and cyclist.

nBicycles are considered vehicles and should be given the appropriate right of way.

nIt is legal to pass "slow moving vehicles" on double-yellow lines when it can be done safely.

Cyclists

nLaws that apply to motorists apply to cyclists.

nRide in the same direction as traffic in the farthest right lane that heads in your direction.

nDon't swerve in the road or between parked cars.

nWear bright clothing, with reflective tape if possible.

nUse white front light and red rear light.

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