WRONG WAY: Actions of cyclists, skateboarders prompt crackdown

A College of Charleston student looks down George Street as he rides down St. Philip St. the wrong way Friday morning. Many cyclists have ignored the rules of the road, prompting a crackdown.

Brad Nettles

Derrick Harrison has received three traffic tickets in the past month for riding his bicycle the wrong way on Charleston's Anson Street.

So, has that stopped him? Not on your life. He was back at it last week, pedaling the wrong way down the same one-way road as he hustled to his job as a line cook at a Queen Street restaurant.

Harrison is annoyed by the tickets, which cost him $100 and made him late to work. But he said the possibility of getting fined is better than risking his life biking along traffic-clogged arteries like East Bay and Meeting streets.

"I don't like getting tickets," he said. "But this is still the safest way to go."

That sentiment presents a dilemma of sorts for Charleston police, who, in the interest of safety, have been cracking down on bicyclists and skateboarders who flout traffic laws. In a

recent two-day period, police issued some 60 citations to errant bikers and boarders, mostly for riding the wrong way on one-way streets, Lt. Dale Wilson said.

College of Charleston public safety officers handed out an additional 40 warning tickets for similar infractions, Chief Paul Verrecchia said.

The crackdown comes in response to city and neighborhood concerns about the potential for someone to get seriously injured or killed bucking the rules of the road, Wilson said.

"We've received a lot of complaints from Ansonborough, South of Broad and Harleston Village," he said. "The biggest complaint we receive is bicyclists and skateboarders traveling the wrong way against traffic, leaving motorists with nowhere to go. We're just trying to get them to obey the rules of the road so everyone is safe."

Dangerous encounters

Historic Charleston, with its intricate network of one-way streets and narrow lanes, has struggled at times to embrace the mushrooming popularity of cycling and skateboarding, which have taken off as gas prices soar. Officials preach a "share the road" philosophy, but a series of deadly cycling accidents and mishaps continues to raise concerns about the safety of non-motorized transportation in the Holy City.

A July collision claimed the life of a well-known doctor, who was struck by a van while riding his bicycle on the James Island connector and plunged 40 feet to the marsh below. Two months earlier, a 25-year-old bicyclist was killed on Old Towne Road in West Ashley by a man accused of driving under the influence. And a popular bicycling advocate died in July of last year when a Jeep Cherokee struck his cycle on Montagu Street.

All of those crashes were blamed on the actions of the motorists involved, and they galvanized local efforts to afford greater courtesy and protection to cyclists. But police and others say there are plenty of examples of bad behavior and unnecessary risk-taking by cyclists as well.

On Friday, for example, one young man was seen riding his bike the wrong way on St. Philip Street near the College of Charleston, narrowly missing an oncoming truck as he darted in and out of traffic. Not far away, Wilson said, another wrong-way cyclist ended up injured in a collision with a car on King Street about six months ago.

"We're just trying to balance the needs to the bicyclists with the need to protect them," he said.

Some, however, think the police could find better ways to get their message across.

"I think it's bull," said David Lamberson, a 21-year-old College of Charleston student. "You can get a $200 ticket just riding your bike to campus and you're not really doing anything wrong."

Fellow student Jena Mohr, 19, agreed. "Kids are just trying to get places and the traffic is so bad on the main roads."

Tom Bradford, director of the bicycle advocacy group Charleston Moves, sympathizes with the cyclists and understands that Anson Street, in particular, has a reputation as a "bicyclists' street." He too finds the traffic on East Bay and Meeting streets intimidating at times.

But Bradford and his organization support the police efforts, including the crackdown on scofflaws. "I don't blame police for enforcing laws that are on the books," he said. "We feel the drivers and the cyclists need to become better educated and enforcement is a major part of that."

Sharing the road

City Councilman Mike Seekings said officials want to do whatever they can to encourage biking and walking in Charleston, and the city needs to study ways to make it safer for cyclists to get around. But people need to obey the rules of the road as well, and riding the wrong way is "illegal, unsafe and unproductive," he said.

As for skateboards, Seekings doesn't think they have any place on streets in the historic and commercial districts. The city, in fact, bans skateboarding on its streets.

Seekings said skateboarding is a great form of recreation, and he supports the new skateboard park planned for land under the Ravenel Bridge ramps just west of Meeting Street. But he said he has seen too many accidents and close-calls with skateboards to support their wider use on downtown roadways. He recalled one recent incident in which a skateboarder crashed full-speed into a mailman walking down a city sidewalk.

"Skateboarding is a huge problem in the downtown," he said. "To me, it's one of the biggest livability issues we have."

August Wright welcomes the prospect of a new skate park, but that isn't going to get her to class on time. The 19-year-old College of Charleston junior's skateboard has been her primary mode of transportation since her bicycle got stolen during her freshman year. She lives some 20 blocks from campus and depends on her board to get her there.

Her friend, junior Josh Richmond, is in the same boat and he's not sure what he would do without his board. He said he got a $50 ticket last week on St. Philip Street simply for skateboarding, even though he was riding with traffic and obeying signals. He doesn't understand why he should be treated differently than someone riding a bike.

"Frankly, this is discriminatory," he said. "Skateboards are a very widely used form of transportation."

Richmond and Wright have set to work collecting signatures on a petition to ask City Council to legalize skateboards on city streets as transportation. They've collected close to 500 signatures already and are shooting for 4,000.

Police say they generally don't go after skateboarders who aren't violating some other traffic law, but examples of that are abundant.

Verrecchia said some riders he's seen are just plain dangerous. He recently saw a skateboarder riding alongside a bicycle and steering the bike while the cyclist had his hands in the air. All this while they were in traffic on St. Philip Street. "Things like that are driving the strict enforcement," he said.