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Road Worrier: NCDOT calls for new curbs on bicyclists

Cyclists in Hillsborough, NC travel the Cycle North Carolina route through Orange County.
Cyclists in Hillsborough, NC travel the Cycle North Carolina route through Orange County. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Bike safety advocates applaud proposals from the state Department of Transportation for new laws that would encourage motorists to take more care when they pass bicycle riders, but they are balking at DOT’s push for new restrictions on cyclists.

Drivers would be given more leeway to cross the double-yellow line that marks a no-passing zone – where they can do so safely – in order to pass slower-moving cyclists. They also would be required to give cyclists a wide berth, maintaining a passing clearance of four feet.

An average 19 cyclists die and more than 600 are hurt on North Carolina streets and highways each year. Many crashes involve impatient drivers who are determined to avoid crossing the center line on the left – while they misjudge the space separating car from bicycle on the right.

“The motorists pass too closely or swerve back too soon,” James Gallagher of the UNC Center for Highway Safety Research said Monday.

Greenville Police Sgt. Mike Montanye said the proposed yellow-line exception for passing bicycles was, “hands down,” the most important recommendation on DOT’s bike-safety list.

“If you can give the bicycle a greater distance when passing, I think it’s safer all around,” Montanye said. “Where the passing occurs, from what I’ve seen, is where the crash is going to occur.”

The proposed legislation was among draft recommendations DOT released quietly last week, after a review requested by the legislature. Montanye and Gallagher served on a 12-member ad hoc committee that had spent the past five months studying bike safety issues, at DOT’s request.

Cycling advocates and some study group members criticized three DOT proposals that went counter to the study group’s suggestions. Department officials led by Kevin Lacy, DOT’s chief traffic engineer, say cyclists should not be allowed to ride more than two abreast, should be required to get local permits for large informal group rides, and should be directed to stay in the right half of the travel lane.

Many cyclists argue that it sometimes is safer for riders to “take the lane” – riding at the center or left of center – to make themselves more visible to motorists and to discourage cars from passing in dangerous situations.

“If the law were changed so cyclists have to ride at the right edge of the lane, drivers will try to squeeze by,” said Steven Goodridge of Cary, a board member for BikeWalkNC, a statewide cycling advocacy group, who served on DOT’s advisory committee.

State law says vaguely that all vehicles must stay “as close as practicable” to the right edge of the road. Lacy said the DOT recommendation would simply clarify the rule for bicycles.

“This comes down to defining where motorists should expect to see cyclists,” Lacy said. “There’s different lines of thinking out there.”

The study group acknowledged that local residents and motorists sometimes are unhappy about traffic snarls blamed on cyclists who ride in groups of 50, 100 or more. They called only for education and outreach efforts to teach cyclists how to avoid problems.

DOT said local governments should be empowered to require permits for big informal group rides.

“In some cases they were shutting down roads, blocking people in their homes, or preventing people from getting access to their businesses,” Lacy said.

Goodridge said a variety of local regulations would be unfair and unworkable for bike trips that pass through several counties. He said permits are appropriate only for special events such as parades and races where roads are closed.

The proposal to relax the yellow-line rules where bikes are involved is similar to a broader bill, which covered drivers trying to pass any slow-moving vehicle, that died early this year. Some legislators worried it would cause head-on crashes.

Legislators asked this year for the DOT review of bike-safety issues, including suggestions – both rejected by DOT – that cyclists be required to carry identification and ride in single file. The study group received recommendations from cyclists and from rural residents who favored sweeping restrictions.

The Schley Grange, an Orange County chapter of the national farmers organization, called on DOT to endorse a 15 mph speed limit for cyclists, require permits for group rides involving five or more cyclists and order cyclists to pull off the road when cars were unable to pass them.

While tensions rise where motorists and cyclists compete for space on city streets and rural roads, the DOT proposals come as state and local governments are extending bike lanes and making more accommodations for people who don’t want to travel in cars.

“We’re encouraging more pedestrians and more bicycles in our communities,” Montanye said. “And some old laws on the books may need to be adjusted.”

DOT’s bike safety recommendations

In new draft recommendations to the General Assembly, the state Department of Transportation says North Carolina should:

Require cyclists to ride in the right half of the travel lane, when they’re traveling at least 15 mph slower than the speed limit.

Prohibit cyclists from riding more than two abreast, except when passing other riders.

Require a minimum passing clearance of four feet for motorists who pass slower-moving cyclists. Current law requires a two-foot clearance for all vehicles.

Allow motorists to cross the double-yellow (no passing) line, when they can do so safely, to pass cyclists.

Authorize local governments to require permits or registration for informal group rides involving more than 30 cyclists.

Require cyclists at night to use a rear red light or wear reflective clothing visible from at least 200 feet behind the bike.

Give cyclists the option to use the right hand to signal a right turn.

Punish motorists who run cyclists off the road or force them to change lanes because the motorist has made an abrupt turn or other unsafe movement. Current law gives this protection to motorcyclists.

Source: NCDOT