I read an interesting article last week about the ongoing reaction to the death of Charleston cyclist Dr. Mitchell Hollon on the James Island Connector. In that article, Joseph P. Riley, the Mayor of Charleston, said it was “absolutely essential” to create a safe way for cyclists and pedestrians to cross the Ashley River. The Mayor’s comments came a month after a motorist, Gregory Rupley, swerved onto the shoulder of the Connector and killed popular area cyclist Dr. Mitchell Hollon.
I’ve commented in a previous entry about the way Charleston law enforcement, in a stunning dereliction of duty, has spent most of July pretending that South Carolina has no law against vehicular manslaughter. While I applaud the Mayor’s stated intention to make Charleston safer, his words ring hollow while police are declining to enforce laws that are already on the books.
The authorities of Charleston have excused Dr. Hollon’s killer. That’s troubling for many reasons, but especially because the charges (“Improper Lane Usage”) leave a sense of unassigned blame. The court of public opinion, following the lead of law enforcement and local journalism, is deciding that Mitchell Hollon did not die through any fault of Gregory Rupley’s. The implication now taking hold is that Dr. Hollon’s death was his own fault for daring to ride a bicycle among motor vehicles. Read some of the ugly ‘user comments’ in online news articles about the crash, and you’ll see.
The process of blaming Dr. Hollon for his own death began when biased public officials and journalists used the word “accident” in reference to the crash. The term “accident”, in common usage, refers to random chance, an event without cause and beyond control, that leads unpredictably and unavoidably to a harmful result. Those who identify strongly with motoring, or those hostile to cycling, prefer the word “accident” to describe Dr. Hollon’s death, for its built-in assumptions of sympathy and freedom from responsibility for the motorist.
The “accident” narrative goes like this. First, Gregory Rupley operated a motor vehicle at a high rate of speed, an event that occurred through random chance. Second, he failed to use attentively the lane markings, brakes, and steering wheel to control his vehicle properly, due to reasons beyond his control. Finally, despite a history of dangerous driving, including convictions for speeding and causing a previous “accident”, the catastrophic results were impossible for Mr. Rupley to foresee, or take measures to avoid. This is an absurd charade, of course, but anyone who calls Dr. Hollon’s killing an “accident” is selling this version of events.
Here is an example of the way some police officers and at least one local newspaper writer are ignoring or stretching the facts to fit the charade.
“Currently, bicyclists ride in the emergency pull-off lane on the [James Island] Connector, which puts them in shaky legal territory. The day after the accident, Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis was unable to say for certain whether bicycling was allowed on the 55 mph freeway. Under South Carolina law, it is illegal to ride a bike on a freeway, defined as “a multilane divided highway with full control of access, and grade separated interchanges.” Violation of the law is a misdemeanor carrying a punishment of up to a $100 fine or 30 days of imprisonment.” – Charleston City Paper
The article cites the definition of a “freeway” under South Carolina law, but the author uses only the first 16 words of the definition, and replaces the remaining 24 words with a period. The author is suggesting, with a seemingly deliberate omission of important details, that Dr. Hollon was the lawbreaker, and by proxy, that Gregory Rupley was the victim.
Here is the full text of the law that defines a “freeway” in South Carolina, in context, with all 40 words included:
SECTION 56-5-615. Freeway defined.
“A ‘freeway’ is a multilane divided highway with full control of access, and grade separated interchanges, of the type comprising the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or other highways built essentially in conformance to the standards of them.”
The James Island Connector is not part of the Interstate System, nor did the builders conform to the standards of the Interstate System during its construction in 1996. The standards of the Interstate System include, among other things, full control of access, and a 10-foot right paved shoulder.
The right shoulder is three feet wide at the Mitchell Hollon crash site on the Robert B. Scarborough Bridge, and three feet wide in most of the sections on dry land. The FHA standards for “full control of access”, as documented in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, require a freeway to be enclosed within walls or fences. Roadside views from the 3-mile-long the James Island Expressway on Google Maps show several areas with conspicuous omissions of this requirement. (It’s worth mentioning that the standards of the Interstate System are designed to accommodate bicycle traffic, which is legal on a freeway under federal law.) The James Island Connector is not a freeway.
Those who misrepresent the legal status of the Connector are contributing to the ongoing effort to excuse Gregory Rupley and blame Mitchell Hollon for the “accident”. This is driving to a conclusion that Dr. Hollon had a duty to avoid cycling on the James Island connector, and his failure in that duty caused the otherwise avoidable result of his own killing. It’s disgusting, but these distortions of the truth to fit the “accident” narrative are prevailing, as evidenced in the failure of police to charge Mr. Rupley, in newspaper articles about Dr. Hollon’s death, and in some increasingly ugly user comments that accompany such articles.
A serious effort to make the Connector safer for cyclists would involve four simple and relatively inexpensive steps; (1) reduce the speed limit from 55 MPH to 35 MPH, (2) add cycling sharrows down the center of the right lane, (3) crack down on speeding and aggressive driving, and (4) prosecute motorists like Gregory Rupley for vehicular manslaughter. All of this would require the city officials of Charleston to recognize that cyclists already are legitimate roadway users under South Carolina law. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
The uneven handling of Dr. Hollon’s death suggests that Charleston city officials will use the bogus “questionable legal status” of cyclists as a pretext to leave the James Island Connector exactly the way it is, and allow history to repeat itself. That would complete the terrible mockery of justice that is now unfolding in Charleston, where a killer gets his freedom, and his victim gets the blame.