Sumptuary laws are governmental control of consumption for select groups. Historically they restricted the consumption of clothing, food or luxury expenditures in an attempt to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies and social discrimination.
Bicycling sumptuary laws limit bicycle drivers’ use of public roads in order to give even greater advantage to motorists, who, judging by the ubiquity of motor vehicles, clearly don’t need additional favor. U.S.-wide, bicycling organizations are fighting these long existing and newly proposed discriminatory laws.
In response to House Bill 232, the N.C. Department of Transportation proactively suggested sumptuary statutes on bicyclists, and then in its report to the legislature (bit.ly/1K2Wi2V) disregarded the recommendations of a 12-member committee to not restrain bicyclists. DOT strives to curb bicyclists to the right half of the lane on roads posted greater than 35 mph, to limit riding abreast, and to require permits for informal groups of more than 30. Motorists would be free to cross double yellow lines to pass bicyclists with a minimum 4 feet of clearance.
In its report DOT disingenuously frames bicyclists’ common position on the right half of the lane as a best practice, when it well knows such positioning increases risk of Overtaking/Sideswipe, Drive Out, Left Cross, Right Hook, and Dooring type collisions. “It is the common practice” is a poor rationale for codifying and requiring risky bicyclist behavior for motorists’ benefit.
DOT’s obvious objective in keeping bicyclists right is to enable motorists to encroach on bicyclists’ lane space to enhance motorist passing convenience. Report protagonist traffic engineer Kevin Lacy rationalized this in an interview on NPR’s “The State of Things” on Jan. 5 saying:
“We drive for what we expect. … If you never see a … cyclist on the roadway … especially in these rural areas … driver expectation … is a tremendous benefit. So if I know that the cyclists are supposed to be over here in most cases if they’re going straight then that gives me a little more room as a motorist and … I shouldn’t be as surprised if they’re on that half of the road.”
Rural motorists who’ve never seen a cyclist? How would that mythical motorist know bicyclists should be on the right half of the lane? And we thought an alleged problem was too many bicyclists in rural areas, not bafflement.
All motor vehicle operators should not be surprised to see bicyclists, motorcyclists, crossing pedestrians, stopped vehicles, or farm tractors in any part of the lane at any time, and react without incident. That’s known as being in control and maintaining Assured Clear Distance Ahead.
DOT has a history of playing loose with bicycle drivers’ rights. Almost a decade ago five knowledgeable advocates wrote to DOT (bit.ly/1PZoVjX) to protest the many errors in its publication A Guide to North Carolina Bicycle and Pedestrian Laws. The guide states that “the bicyclist must travel in the right-hand lane and should ride as close as practicable to the right hand edge of the highway.” We pointed out that the actual statute §20-146(b) uses the word or, not and. We were dismissed then and in subsequent emails in recent years.
Currently, motorists when passing often encroach into bicyclists’ lane space in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” arrangement. This works tolerably so long as motorists don’t take risks, bully, or strike bicyclists. But DOT’s suggested wording sensibly allowing motorists to cross the double yellow centerline to pass bicyclists, also unacceptably codifies that it’s legal to encroach on bicyclists’ lane space.
The DOT report claims that motorists sometimes misjudge passing distance, striking bicyclists. Since that’s the case, motorists should be required to fully change lanes when crossing over the double yellow or in passing permitted zones, making the number of bicyclists operating abreast irrelevant. A 4-foot passing distance should be required when passing on un-laned roads, often found in neighborhoods.
In the final draft version of its report, DOT wrote, “It is unknown the extent to which group rides without special event permits have prevented safe passing or caused unreasonable traffic delay.” This statement is conspicuously absent in its final report, but is still true. DOT has no data. Neither do I. But I can confidently say it’s self-evident that any delay to motorists caused by bicycling is negligible, dwarfed by the ubiquity of motoring that hinders everyone.