Braving the Deep, Deadly South on a Bicycle

Cyclists are 10 times likelier to be killed in South Carolina than in Oregon. What makes southern roads so treacherous? 
In Charleston, South Carolina, a white bicycle stands permanently chained to a signpost at the corner where Edwin Gardner was "hit and run over and dragged" by a car three years ago. (Aaron Reuben)

Ken Spicer’s grandkids were expecting him when they heard the accident. From inside the house it sounded like a car had hit a post. But they knew differently when they heard their grandfather, age 70, cry out for help.

“I was knocked up into the air,” Spicer remembers. “My head hit the windshield, I came down on the hood, and then down onto the pavement.” While biking to his son’s house he’d been hit by a neighbor driving a white Subaru SUV. “The next thing I remember I was lying in both lanes of the street, in the most excruciating pain of my life,” he says. He had traveled all of three blocks.

This kind of accident can, and does, happen anywhere. But if you live where Spicer does, in the Deep South—outside Charleston, South Carolina, in Spicer’s case—this kind of accident is more likely to occur. Much more likely.

According to a benchmark study, released last year by the National Alliance for Biking and Walking, the states of the southern U.S. are the most dangerous per biker, and per bike mile traveled, by a wide margin. If you bike in South Carolina you are 10 times likelier to be hit and killed by a car than if you bike in Oregon, one of America’s safer states for cyclists. In North Carolina, eight times more likely. In Louisiana, seven. If you bike in Mississippi, that number is close to 13.

By the time Ken Spicer arrived at the local medical center, where he is a practicing radiologist, he had lost more than half the blood in his body. As word spread among the physicians that one of their own had been injured, “everyone came down to see me,” he remembers. Then, “all of a sudden, boom, there was nobody there. Like a switch had been thrown.” While he was being treated another car had hit another biker, he learned later, and his trauma team had rushed to resuscitate, in vain, the second injured cyclist of the day. Eventually, Spicer was diagnosed with a spiral fracture of the femur. To reduce the pain from his shredded muscles, pins were inserted into his knee and a sandbag on a pulley hung from them. It was months before he could walk again.

Warm, flat, and scenic, the south should be a bike rider’s dream. But its palm trees and hanging moss stand watch over roadways badly in need of dedicated bike lanes, generous road shoulders, and more navigable urban centers. Beaux Jones, a Louisiana bike advocate, explained that apart from New Orleans, the cities in his state have inherited a structure, “that is somewhat antithetical to biking for pleasure or other purposes.” In contrast with compact cities like San Francisco or Portland, Baton Rouge “is a city that stretches across 35 miles,” he points out. Few choose to bike it.

Melody Moody, the executive director of Bike Walk Mississippi, explains that her state has “a big issue with a lack of paved shoulders. We’ve been working on that for years, but with less success than we would have hoped.”

A report on transportation spending by Advocacy Advance, a partnership between the Alliance for Biking and Walking and the League of American Bicyclists, found that the southern states spend, or plan to spend, the least on biking and walking safety infrastructure as a percentage of their total spending. Over the last few years, Massachusetts directed more than 5 percent of its transportation spending to bicycle and pedestrian facilities. In that same time period Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi each devoted one half of one percent.

This lack of investment reflects limited coffers—as well as a limited number of bikers. In South Carolina, “we’ve had the third largest state roadway system, with the third lowest gas tax,” says Amy Johnson, director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition in South Carolina. As a result, her state has a small budget that has to feed a fat road system hungry for upkeep. State planners are often more likely to view biking as recreation than transportation. “You’re dealing with a mentality that is focused on intrastate travel,” she says. They can be “very resistant to providing funding for construction, reconstruction, or moving lane markings.”

As Moody sees it, the best way to improve cycling conditions in southern states is to increase the number of riders. “We believe in the concept of ‘safety in numbers’ and overwhelmingly believe in the effort to increase ridership as a way to increased safety,” she says. Few would disagree with this conclusion. If drivers don’t expect to see cyclists on the roads, they won’t keep an eye out for them. The statistics in the benchmark study certainly suggest that, on a state-by-state basis, this is true. Eight of the 10 most dangerous states for biking in the U.S. see the fewest bike riders each year. All eight of these are southern. In Alabama, one of the most dangerous cycling states, less than one percent of commutes were performed by bike in 2012.

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Aaron Reuben is a freelance journalist and researcher at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

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