If you walk, run or bike the Cooper River bridge, take a couple of deep breaths before you read this column.
It may make your blood boil.
Last week, an accident involving a bicyclist and a pedestrian on the bike-ped lane of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge may be the most serious since it opened eight years ago today.
The accident underscores, yet again, what I've asserted in this column over the years: The bridge needs better markings and signs as well as constant diligence among its users, and for those who don't obey the rules, tickets and fines from the police.
Close to death
At about 7 p.m. July 9, Jeff Slotkin, a bike commuter of 20 years, was heading to his West Ashley home from his job as bike mechanic at Sweetgrass Cycles in Mount Pleasant. He was on the bike lane on the gentler-sloping, Charleston-side of the bridge.
He says he was keeping an eye out for children and dogs, the latter of which are prohibited on the bridge (more on that later), or any other pedestrian entering the bike lane.
Slotkin says he saw two guys walking ahead of him enter the bike lane to pass another group of pedestrians and then get back into the pedestrian lane.
As Slotkin approached, he slowed down and moved closer to the wall separating the bike path from car traffic.
Just as he passed, Slotkin says one of the men “darted out in front of him as he saw a 100 dollar bill on the ground” and ran into Slotkin's handlebars.
The collision knocked out the pedestrian, identified in a Charleston Police Department report as Steven Bohelmann (though with no age nor address were listed), and sent Slotkin flying.
“I landed on my forehead and face,” says Slotkin, noting that his helmet left an imprint on his skull and broke. “If I hadn't been wearing it, we wouldn't be having this conversation ... I would have been dead.”
Both men went to the hospital.
Despite injuries that included road rash over most of his body, Slotkin remarkably was at work the next day. Bohelmann remained in the hospital in fair condition as of Friday, according to Medical University of South Carolina media relations.
Because of federal privacy laws, the MUSC emergency room physician who treated him and public relations staff couldn't comment further. The latter passed on a request to family for an interview.
While accidents such as this have been rare in the past eight years, Slotkin adds “the near misses are constant” and, like others, stem from the short-sighted design flaw of jamming two-way bike and pedestrian traffic on one, “shared” 12-foot lane of the bridge.
I've heard of two similarly serious accidents in the past two years.
On May 18, 2011, then-57-year-old Kay Miller was riding her bike to the annual Ride of Silence, a memorial ride for those who have died or been injured in bike accidents (usually involving cars).
She says she was riding in the bike lane and approached a runner wearing headphones in the middle of the lane. Miller says she slowed down, yelled three times to warn of her approach, but he didn't budge. When she decided to ride around him, she says he decided to move — right into Miller.
They collided. She hit the concrete, broke her collarbone, separated her shoulder and suffered a concussion (she was wearing a helmet), as well as some road rash. She says that while she was gathering herself, the runner, whom she described as “a strong guy,” in his mid-30s and wearing no shirt, got up and ran off.
Miller, who at the time was a part-time student and church custodian with no insurance, was taken to the hospital, but she says she refused to let medical staff clean her road rash for fear it would add to her medical bill.
When I interviewed her the week after the accident, she said, “It (her injuries) still hurts all the time.”
In the spring of 2012, seasoned cyclist Clark Wyly had a similar bike accident on the steeper, Mount Pleasant-side of the bridge.
Wyly, now 56, recalls going for an early morning Sunday ride from his West Ashley home to Sullivan's Island on his mountain bike.
“I was going maybe 10 miles per hour and there was this guy with an iPod and earbuds who stepped out in front of me (in the bike lane),” he says.
Wyly says he slammed on his brakes, flipped over and hit the deck. The pedestrian was unharmed and so oblivious that he kept walking. After Wyly shook off the impact, he says he caught up with the walker and confronted him.
“He was getting into his truck and I said, 'You stepped in front me,' and all the guy said was 'I'm sorry' and that he was a cyclist, too,” says Wyly.
Wyly was so mad that he forgot to get the guy's license plate and rode home, despite later discovering that he had broken his right wrist, separated his right shoulder and twisted his right ankle. He was wearing a helmet, which cracked, and shoes that clipped into pedals.
“It took me about 12 weeks to heal from that accident,” he says.
To this day, Wyly has not biked on the Cooper River bridge.
What to do?
And while Wyly is adamant that cyclists need to realize that the bridge's bike path is not a “drag strip,” it still doesn't remove the risk of erratic moves by pedestrians.
When I posted last week's accident on my Facebook page, it elicited an array of comments.
Many wanted to know how Bohelmann was doing and were genuinely worried. Cyclists worried officials would close the bridge to bikes. Pedestrians talked about getting yelled at by cyclists and that many act toward pedestrians like some angry drivers do toward cyclists. Some talked about the design shortcomings of the lane.
Many talked about inadequate signs and markings on the concrete.
At this point, I get on my soapbox.
We have to live with what the S.C. Department of Transportation gave us.
But it should be putting more adequate bike-ped facilities on future roads and bridges and retrofitting existing ones.
Signs and the bike and ped logos on the concrete need to be more obvious at the entryways to the lane. And the logos need to be repeated more frequently along the 2.5-mile lane.
Those who use it need to adhere to rules, practice good manners and be patient and tolerant. Parents of small children should keep them securely in the pedestrian lane.
A sign should be added that wearing headphones and earbuds is strongly discouraged for safety reasons and that those who wear them should pay extra attention.
As an animal lover and owner of three dogs that I walk twice a day, I say this: Dogs are prohibited on the Cooper River bridge. And people who walk them on the bridge should be fined the maximum allowable by law. Failure to pick up dog poop should be extra.
The police need to do occasional blitzes and issue some tickets and fines. That'll get the word out.
Despite the scary accidents and the bike-ped lane's inadequate design, it remains a positive influence on our community.
I'd hate for that to change.
Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand courier.com.
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