Chapel Hill: Opinion

Bonnie Hauser: Share the road goes two ways

Passing cyclists on rural roads, especially groups of cyclists, can be more dangerous because of hills and poor sight lines.
Passing cyclists on rural roads, especially groups of cyclists, can be more dangerous because of hills and poor sight lines. JIM BOUNDS

Rural Orange County is a popular destination for recreational cyclists from all over the Triangle. Why not? Bucolic farms, historic churches and impressivelandscapes are everywhere, and most of the roads are in great shape for a smooth ride. Rural roads are different than towns, but the recent tragedy on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevad reminds us to all do our part to share the road safely.

On any given day, hundreds of cyclists share rural roads with cars, trucks and school buses traveling at speeds of 45 to 60 mph. Recreational cyclists compete with motorists driving to work, school or just trying to get on with their day.

Rural roads are not designed for sharing. There are no bike lanes, and natural curves and hills limit sight lines.

Slow moving vehicles – tractors, ATVs, etc. – are common. Pass carefully, with a wave and a smile. Similarly, it’s reasonably easy to pass one or two cyclists – especially when everyone is cooperating. Eye contact makes a difference.

The mood changes when five, 10, 20 or cyclists ride in the center of the road. Even the fastest cyclists, riding at 25 to 30 mph, are legally “impeding traffic” and supposed to pull over. Many ignore basic laws (stop signs, signaling, etc.). Some don’t even pull over for fire trucks or ambulances running lights and sirens.

Motorists aren’t perfect either. The most common complaint is tailgating and passing too closely. Sudden, unexpected movements can send a cyclist off the road and cause a serious accident.

The debate revolves around “rights” and “sharing the road” with cyclists. The conversation changes if we each take responsibility for rural road safety.

The risks are alarming. In an accident involving a cyclist and motorist, the cyclist will get hurt. That’s in addition to accidents where cyclists lose control on gravel or other unexpected road surfaces. With so many cyclists sharing rural roads, frustrated motorists are now risking head-on collisions by passing on blind curves or hills. There are many close calls.

As motorists, we can do our part to make our roads safer. That means giving cyclists plenty of room (at least four feet) when passing. When passing and driving into oncoming traffic, make sure we have clear line of sight. Admittedly, when we’re in a rush, this becomes more challenging.

Cyclists can help by riding in small groups, signaling, and obeying traffic laws including stop signs and rights of way. If you have to stop, please get off the road!

It you are impeding traffic please allow vehicles to pass. It helps if you separate into small groups. Most motorists can safely pass a few cyclists, but when there are five or more, it’s more difficult, especially if there’s traffic.

Our rural roads will become safer when leaders get serious. The sheriff’s department has begun working with state Department of Transportation and county leaders to explore options, including:

• More education to help everyone do his or her part to improve road safety

• “Pull offs.” i.e. safety shoulders at blind curves and hills, so that cyclists can pull over and allow vehicles to pass

• Combining recreational and road budgets to fund bike lanes on heavily used roads

• Enforcing current traffic laws for signaling, stop signs, and emergency vehicles, and creating better laws for passing and impeding traffic on roads where speed limits exceed 45 mph

• Better mechanisms to enforce laws, including requiring cyclists to carry identification.

Change takes time. For now, everyone can enjoy rural Orange County if we each do our part to share the road safely.

Bonnie Hauser lives in rural Orange County. Gail Alberti and Bryant Dodson assisted in writing this column.