Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier
“My first thought is I want him to have retribution,” said Daniel Russell-Einhorn, owner of Afordabike on King Street, about the driver of a van that hit and killed bicyclist Mitchell Hollon.
Bicycling enthusiasts say it's time for stiffer laws and penalties for fatal wrecks after the driver of a van that struck and killed a popular cyclist last week was charged only with a traffic infraction.
"That's it?" a stunned Jason Wilson said Thursday after learning that the driver of an AT&T work van was being charged with improper lane use. "He took a life."
Local bike shop owner Daniel Russell-Einhorn expressed similar sentiments.
"My first thought is I want him to have retribution, I want him to come to justice," Russell-Einhorn said at his Affordabike on King Street.
"On the other hand, I know that as good as it would make somebody feel, I don't think it will make riding bikes any safer."
Charleston police charged van driver Gregory Rupley with improper lane usage in the accident that killed anesthesiologist Mitchell Hollon July 5 on the James Island connector. The morning rush-hour collision sent Hollon over the wall of the westbound lane, 40 feet to the marsh below.
Rupley, 44, of Ashley Hall Road, has a Sept. 1 traffic court date. He faces a $113 penalty and a potential two-point violation on his record, police said.
Charleston Police Traffic Division Lt. Chip Searson said the charge is the closest applicable under state law involving a car-versus-bike accident, fatal or otherwise. Rupley is accused of drifting into the breakdown lane, where he struck Hollon from behind.
The driver showed no "willful or wanton disregard for public safety," Searson said, meaning the only option was to file a traffic infraction.
Section 56-5-1900 of the state code states, "A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety."
Said Searson, "There's no evidence he was impaired by narcotics, or he was intoxicated or traveling at an excessive speed. In South Carolina, when you don't have those, all you have is what the traffic charge is."
Searson said there is evidence that Rupley was using a mobile device around the time of the accident, since an investigation of Rupley's pattern showed activity immediately before Rupley's 911 call.
But since it is not against the law to use a cellular or texting device while driving in South Carolina, no heightened charges were possible, he said.
"I'm sure what happened is he simply took his eyes off the road," he said. "Nearly every accident we have is because of driver inattention."
Charleston attorney David Aylor, who represents Rupley, issued a statement Thursday saying his client had cooperated, turned over his cellphone and computer, and that investigators had ruled out his using a cellphone or texting at the time of the accident.
He later amended his statement to remove the reference to investigators ruling out the use of a cellphone at the time of the incident, saying instead that Rupley told investigators that he was not on the phone at the time of the incident.
"Mr. Rupley is very saddened by the accidental death of Dr. Hollon," the statement added, "and his thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Hollon's family, friends and patients."
There is local precedent of motor vehicle operators receiving relatively light charges in cases involving death.
In May of 2010, Mount Pleasant police decided not to file criminal charges against the driver of an SUV who ran into two motorcyclists at a stop light, killing both. He was cited for traveling too fast for conditions, a minor traffic violation, and paid a fine.
Also last year, 21-year-old Charlotte White was charged with following too closely in an accident that killed noted biking enthusiast Edwin Gardner, 64, while he was riding his bicycle on Montagu Street near Lockwood Boulevard.
She opted for a legal move known as "forfeiting a bond," meaning she did not appear in court on the charges but paid between $100 and $200 to the clerk of court that settled the ticket. She did not admit guilt or contest the allegation, said her attorney, David Michel.
Gedney Howe, the attorney for Hollon's family, said Thursday he would leave the question about the proper charge up to police authorities.
Sharing the road
Other members of the biking community said the minimal charge and Hollon's death should be reasons for local forces to unite behind road improvements and driver education.
Steve Merz, sales manager of the Bicycle Shop on Meeting Street, said immediate responses should include "share the road" signs on major routes, reminding drivers that cyclists may be present. The signs would reinforce safety the same way the universal "deer crossing" sign does in rural areas.
Merz added that the fault for Hollon's death goes higher than that one collision, saying the state has allowed an anti-biking culture. "It's the people who set up the law's fault," he said.
Wendy Hicks, another local recreational cyclist, said student-drivers need to be taught from their earliest behind-the-wheel lessons that the presence of a bike is not license to become aggressive or to question the rights of riders or pedestrians using roadways.
"Public roads are for everyone, not just cars," she said.