Death of beloved anesthesiologist refocuses debate on cycling-safety issues

Dr. Mitchell Hollon, bicyclist killed in a collision on the James Island connector.

Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

Cyclists Jay Brown (left) and Jonathan Walker — and lots of vehicles — share the James Island connector on Wednesday afternoon.

Dr. Mitchell Hollon was more than a bicycling advocate. He was a man of many hearts.

The noted anesthesiologist worked all 35 of the first heart transplants performed in South Carolina, opting to come in for operations he wasn't slated to be part of.

That's why his death on the James Island connector is hitting so many people so hard.

"We rode together and we traveled together," said Dr. Jack Crumbley, the Medical University of South Carolina heart surgeon who performed those transplants.

Hollon's death, he said, meant the loss of a "best friend."

Tuesday's accident has refocused the debate on safety in the city where various leaders say sharing space with cyclists is key to thriving as an urban environment. Mayor Joe Riley's response to the accident included writing a letter to the state Department of Transportation asking officials to evaluate improvements that could protect recreational travelers on the connector.

"We want to make the community safer for people who walk, run and bike," Riley said Wednesday.

Hollon is the second bicyclist killed in the city this year. Two died in all of 2010, with one each in 2009 and 2008.

The fatal collision

Charleston police say a yet-to-be-determined traffic charge is expected to be filed against the driver of the utility van that killed Hollon, a 3,000-mile-a-year rider, during rush hour Tuesday morning. The impact sent the 54-year-old over the side of the connector and into the marsh some 40 feet below.

Lt. Chip Searson, head of Charleston's traffic division, confirmed that officials are looking at a variety of contributing factors, including whether the driver's cellphone or other personal electronic devices were in operation at the time of the 8:40 a.m. collision.

Searson repeated the department's assertion that all signs point to the operator of the AT&T work van as being solely at fault in the accident. The driver of that vehicle was identified as Gregory E. Rupley, 44, of Ashley Hall Road in Charleston.

S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles records list Rupley's 10-year driving record as including a 2006 conviction for driving 10 mph or less over the posted speed limit. He also had a motor vehicle accident in 2006 where he was listed as a contributor. In 2005 Rupley was convicted of careless driving, records also show, and in 2004 he had another conviction for speeding 10 mph or less above the limit. He currently has no points against him.

Meanwhile, an AT&T official said the company is cooperating in the probe and that employees who drive on the job are required to complete defensive-driving classes.

The police incident report indicates Rupley allegedly drifted several feet off the traveling lane and into the far right westbound shoulder where the helmet-clad Hollon was obligated to be. No state or local law prohibits cyclists or joggers from using the connector.

The kindly doctor

Crumbley said Hollon's extra-cautious, extra-safe nature fit the profile of a man who biked to relax, chalked up at least 3,000 road miles a year and habitually stopped for every "stop" sign instead of racing through. "He was easy-going but meticulous to detail," Crumbley said of his cycling partner.

When Hollon wasn't building his own bicycles, he'd be helping fix bikes belonging to others, whether it was for a full-on mechanical breakdown or a stranger's flat tire.

"If you had a problem, you just took it to him," said Crumbley, adding that Hollon had turned his garage into a bike shop. "He was the kind of guy who if you said to him you were cold, he'd start taking off his jacket."

Hollon had been on call the night before with his current practice in Mount Pleasant and was on the connector doing his normal morning workout when he was hit. He was such a biking nut that the pair had once ridden together in Italy.

Beyond his love of medicine and biking, Crumbley said his friend sat still only occasionally, "when he wanted to play the piano or play his banjo."

"He had a sense of humor that was not dry, but it was arid," Crumbley added.

Tuesday's fatality did not stop cyclists from crossing the connector on Wednesday, with bike traffic resuming in the morning and continuing throughout the day. One of those riders was Jonathan Walker, who said riding was the exercise he needs -- even if it means facing the dangers on the connector. "You take that risk," he said.

Riley said he is still working to advance a plan that would take one of the inbound lanes of the lower Ashley River bridges and segregate it for use by cyclists and walkers only.

If that were to happen, it would be a "game-changer" as far as providing an alternative path into the city, Riley said. A study on that proposal could be completed by the end of the week, he said.

State laws addressing bicyclists in South Carolina:

1) A person riding a bicycle upon a roadway must be granted all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle.

2) Every bicyclist operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable. A bicyclist may, but is not required to, ride on the shoulder of the roadway in order to comply.

3) When operating a bicycle upon a roadway, a bicyclist must exercise due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction.

4) Bicyclists riding upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.

5) A driver of a motor vehicle must at all times maintain a safe operating distance between the motor vehicle and a bicycle.

It is unlawful to harass, taunt, or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of any person riding a bicycle. A person who violates the provisions of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, must be fined not less than two hundred fifty dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days, or both.

— Source: S.C. Code of Laws