Figuring out how to Best Share the Road

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Cycling is big on the street where I live. A bike shop recently opened nearby and cyclists frequently head out for Sunday afternoon group rides. Sometimes there’s a theme. A few months ago, the cyclists were all wearing tweed and tartan and many of the bikes were adorned with flowers. I find it both entertaining and uplifting to watch these folks ride.

I’m a bit less sanguine about the cyclists I encounter crossing Jordan Lake on Farrington Road at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday. That’s a busy, narrow road with no bike lane. During that time of day, when everyone is heading home from work, there often is little opportunity to pass a cyclist who isn’t traveling the speed limit.

And I’m downright hostile to cyclists who use the right hand edge of a single lane to pass a queue of motor vehicles stopped a stop light to claim a position in front.

My admittedly schizophrenic reaction to sharing the road with cyclists illustrates some of the difficulties faced by the working group charged with assisting the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) in formulating statutory changes to better ensure the safety of bicyclists and motorists on the state’s roadways. Perhaps, then, it was predictable that NCDOT’s recommendations would be a mixed bag, generating both cheers and jeers from the cycling community.

NCDOT’s report recommends several statutory changes, including the following:

Amendments to the no passing law in G.S. 20-150. NCDOT recommends that G.S. 20-150 be amended to permit motorists to pass cyclists who have not signaled for a left turn so long as the motorist provides a minimum of four feet of clearance between his motor vehicle and the bicycle or completely enters the left lane. The proposed amendment would allow motorists to pass cyclists even if the roadway was marked with a double-yellow line, indicating that the area was one in which it was unlawful to pass other motor vehicles. NCDOT’s report notes that it establishes no passing zones with the size and speed capabilities of motor vehicles in mind rather than in consideration of the smaller size and slower speeds of cyclists. This proposal appears to be relatively non-controversial. It was endorsed by both NCDOT and the working group convened to consider the issues, which included cycling enthusiasts, law enforcement officers, and representatives from the agriculture and trucking industries.

Enactment of a law permitting cyclists to ride no more than two abreast. Existing laws do not clearly authorize cyclists to ride two abreast, but, given that motorcycles are authorized to ride two abreast, this type of riding by cyclists is generally accepted. The practice of some cycling groups of spreading out to ride more than two abreast, however, is controversial in addition to lacking any statutory authorization. NCDOT (but not the working group) recommends that the legislature enact a statute approving the operation of bicycles no more than two abreast in a single marked travel lane, except when overtaking another bicyclist. A reporter explained yesterday on WUNC’s The State of Things that some cyclists think this change will unnecessarily impede cycling groups from expeditiously crossing intersections. If the cyclists can fan out across the lane and cross as a group, then the group can proceed through the intersection more quickly.

Enactment of a law requiring cyclists to ride in the right half of the right most travel lane. G.S. 20-146(b) requires any vehicle proceeding at less than the speed limit to be driven in the right-hand lane available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn. The “or” seems to render the second clause inapplicable to cyclists riding in the right lane of a road divided into lanes, regardless of whether they are passing another vehicle or preparing for a left turn. NCDOT (but not the working group) recommends that cyclists riding single file or independently ride on the right half of the right-most travel lane. NCDOT advises that this recommendation could be “folded into education materials as a best practice” or “considered as a statutory amendment.” The agency recommends the following statutory language:

Where a cyclist is riding independently or single abreast, the cyclist shall ride in the right half of the right most travel lane with exceptions described in § 20-146 or except when the cyclist is travelling within 15 miles per hour of the posted speed limit.

Some cycling advocates object to this recommendation. They argue that riding on the right puts them out of view and out of mind of the motorist. It subjects them to a potential “right hook,” the cycling term for what occurs when a motorist turns to the right without regard for the cyclist traveling on her right.

NCDOT traffic engineer Kevin Lacy attempted to explain the rationale for the recommendation in an interview that in yesterday’s The State of Things, saying:

“[W]e drive for what we expect. . . . [I]f 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.”

Everyone agrees that more education is needed. The working group and NCDOT agree on several best practices for cyclists and motorists. They also agree that that the legislature should appropriate resources to allow NCDOT to incorporate these practices into education materials, training programs, and outreach to the cycling and motoring public. Granted I’m old (just ask my kids), but I didn’t learn much about cyclists when I went through driver’s education. And it was only in the process of studying up on these proposed legislative changes that I learned what a sharrow was, why my city has rectangular green pavement markings at certain intersections (to remind motorists to be on the lookout for cyclists who may move into the main travel lane) and why some roads may contain bike lanes only on uphill sections of the street.

17 comments on “Figuring out how to Best Share the Road

  1. Dear Professor Denning,

    I write a column for my neighborhood newsletter. Your blog entry here gives me a good subject. May I quote from it so long as I give you credit and note the School of Government? It is not my intent to copy it or reprint it but to use the ideas from it to fit our newsletter. My article would likely be shorter.
    Steve Grossman

  2. I’d be interested to see how often a cyclist is actually charged with violating a traffic law.

    • Fairly rare for my agency, actually. I mean, sure, we see the violations repeatedly, particularly running red lights, but in order to catch a bicyclist who’s run a red light you then also have to run the red light, and we typically weigh the safety of that maneuver. If a car runs a red light, yes we go after them, because it could be a sign of intoxication on something, medical conditions, or lack of attention, and cars hitting people is potentially fatal. But, if a cyclist runs a red light and causes a traffic crash, generally they’re not hurting someone else, just themselves, and so we typically don’t see the benefit in ourselves running a red light and potentially causing an accident when the injured party is going to be the at-fault cyclist most likely.

      I have charged a cyclist with riding on the wrong side of the road, and with also riding on the sidewalk against city ordinance once when he otherwise would have been fine. He had a green light, but a person was attempting to make a legal right on red turn, and the cyclist crashed into the car’s passenger door as a result of riding on the wrong side of the road.

      • Thanks for your reply!

  3. I applaud the two-abreast rule, and think that’s necessary. This idea of “we won’t get through intersections as quickly” is valid, but, honestly, I see bicyclists riding three and four abreast on major roads, some with speed limits as high as 55mph, and they’re going 20mph and no one can pass them, and the line stretches back for over a mile that cars are impeded. They aren’t going through an intersection – they’re riding on a road with an intentional plan to prevent vehicles from overtaking them out of a concern for their safety. I get that their safety concerns are legitimate, but the vast majority of cyclist/motor vehicle traffic crashes I’ve responded to have been a result of a cyclist not following the rules of the road, not the other way around.

    • NC law requires you to use a single lane, that requires you to to change lanes to pass. Even a single cyclists, no matter their lane position, is entitled to the full width of the lane.

  4. Thanks for expressing your hostility to cyclists. How often is your trip home ruined by someone on their bike? DO you share the same ire for the school bus, UPS drivers, postal service and any other legal road users you may find not operating at FULL speed out on the road?

  5. The “Bicyclist Safety and Law Enforcement” training program was developed by BikeWalk NC in cooperation with Raleigh PD, Cary PD, and NCSU PD to help police officers better enforce traffic laws related to cycling safety, including which violations have the greatest safety impact on cyclists and how to fill out the eCitation forms for bicyclist violations. All sworn officers of Raleigh PD have taken the Raleigh-specific version of this class on RPDNet. BikeWalk NC encourages police officers to enforce the traffic laws fairly for all road users and to learn the different defensive bicycling practices that cyclists use to stay safe and legal on the road.

  6. You wrote: “G.S. 20-146(b) requires any vehicle proceeding at less than the speed limit to be driven in the right-hand lane available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn. The “or” seems to render the second clause inapplicable to cyclists riding in the right lane of a road divided into lanes,”

    ^Correct; a cyclist riding in the center of the right hand lane is in compliance with 20-146(b). Unfortunately, some people at NCDOT don’t understand this; some of them thought the existing law requires cyclists to hug the edge of the pavement, and that their proposal to require bicyclists to use the right half of the lane was an improvement for cyclists rather than a new restriction, which it would be.

  7. Have you been on a bicycle lately? Do you know how dangerous it is in NC where roads are NOT adjusted to allow bicycles and cars to share the same space? Hence cars get mad and act dangerously; which forces bicyclists to start driving defensively (e.g., in large groups), which causes cars to become even more aggressive etc. It is a never ending cycle. As long as roads are not made for both, wouldn’t you agree that the most vulnerable road user safety should be more important than speed of the car? An aggressive car can costs the bicyclist their lives, a group of riders, only cost you a couple of seconds of your drive time. Are we really suggesting the latter is more important?

    Blaming the bicyclist is very unnecessary. There are plenty of cars who break the rules, just as there are plenty of bicyclists. And often the bicyclist gets blamed, even if they weren’t the cause of the accident. A study found that bicyclists are rarely to blame for an accident ( And yes, sometimes we have to break a rule to protect ourselves. I sometimes have to ride over the side walk; go straight on a right turning lane; overtake a car on the right side – just to be safe. Please give bicyclists some benefit of the doubt. Even better – please start bike commuting one day a week yourself so you become more attuned to how a car can safely share the road with bicyclists.
    And to my fellow bicyclists: Please be nice to the cars and let them pass when safely possible!

  8. The only reason to restrict bicyclists to the right half of the lane or to only 2-abreast via sumptuary laws is so motorists can encroach into bicyclists’ lane space for more convenient passing. Motorists currently encroach on bicyclists all the time in a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” type arrangement, but NCDOT wants to codify that bicyclists’ right-of-way can be infringed upon.

    It’s laughable that NCDOT engineer Kevin Lacey would rationalize that motorists shouldn’t be as surprised if bicyclists are on the right half of the lane. What would be the big surprise to see a bicyclist controlling the lane? His quote refers to never seeing a bicyclist on rural roads, but isn’t the alleged problem too many bicyclists on rural roads? His framing is not engineering speak; it’s transparent bigotry.

    Lane control does more than deter Right Hooks. It is defensive against Overtaking/Sideswipe, Left Cross, and Drive Out types collisions as well. Motorcyclists have known this forever; bicyclists are just catching on.

    The suggestion in 20-150 to allow motorists to cross double yellow is fine, except for the stipulation that 4′ be given or fully crossing into the lane. The default condition should be that motorists fully change lanes to pass bicycle drivers. Statutes should not systemize that passing bicyclists within their lane is acceptable. The stipulation should say, “3) Fully changes marked lane to pass; if lanes are not marked, 4′ passing distance minimum (see § 20-149 (a)).” or similar. § 20-149 (a) should be re-worded to require 4′ when passing bicyclists.

  9. You know what I’m “downright hostile” about? Reckless, aggressive motorists who break the speed limit to dangerously pass me as I’m cycling towards an intersection, then pull all the way right and block the right side of the road.

    Let’s see, you were too impatient to wait behind me, but now I’m supposed to wait behind you? I don’t think so.

    Taking the lane often results in drivers honking and screaming at cyclists, so that deters many of us from doing it. Thus, we try to be courteous and ride to the right. When we do this, it encourages motorists like YOU, Denning, to angrily zoom past us. Then we’re left inhaling your fumes, if we choose to wait behind you.

    So let me get it straight: you are too impatient to wait behind us, so you pass. But we’re not then supposed to pass you and filter to the head of the queue? Doesn’t make ANY sense.

    If you agree to let me take the lane and wait behind me as we approach an intersection, I’ll GLADLY refrain from ever filter again. Your reasoning, and that of all the motorist who hate having to share THEIR road with cyclists, is naive. Why? The reason cyclists have to do things like filtering is because motorists treat us recklessly and dangerously. If we actually were treated as equals, we wouldn’t have to do things like filter. What you fail to see is that by treating us so carelessly, we have to sometimes do things that make you “downright hostile.”

    And just your language makes me think you’re deranged. Let me get this straight: a human on a 20 pound pedal bike, with no protect vs. YOU, the “hostile” motorist in a 3000 pound steel box…and you feel hostility towards me? Great. I already knew this from how most motorists treat me, but to have a “educated” person admit to their hostility towards cyclists makes me realize how bad cyclists in the U.S. have it.

    You should be ashamed of yourself for having written this. But the reality is that you already THINK this way, which is even more deplorable. I really, really wish my tax dollars didn’t go towards paying your salary as a professor in our state school system.

  10. I take issue with a few statements in this article, and the some of the sentiment in the comments as well. As a cyclist I feel like motorists treat us as obstacles on the road to overtake ASAP. While riding thousands of miles I ride each year I can’t recall a time that cars have been delayed more than one minute at most behind me or a large group that I was riding with. I spend far more time in traffic because everyone ahead of me is looking at the accident on the other side of the highway. Where is the outrage against rubberneckers?

    I know there are an equal number of bad cyclists as bad drivers, and I think it is misleading for the law enforcement officer to claim that the majority of accidents are the cyclists fault. I’ve been hit two times by a car both times it was the motorists fault, and been witness to hundreds of near misses from cars that generally don’t give cyclists the general respect you should another human being.

    I would caution the author from being “downright hostile” and encouraging or validating that behavior from the general public. While I am a cyclist I’m also a husband, father, and your neighbor. Please give me the basic respect while I’m on the road so I can get home safely like I hope you do as well.

  11. As a motorist, I find it wonderful that cycling groups will occasionally go out of their way to do wacky stuff. Its unnecessary and harmless fun. It makes me realize that we drivers could all benefit from practicing humor and patience. Next time I come across a rider lawfully using the road – albeit Farrington road at 5:30 on a Friday – I will be sure to count to 20. By 20 I will have passed safely. Even if my name was Farrington and it was my road, the whole event is trivial.

    Comparing the time lost to other motor traffic on the roads and time lost to bicycles over the course of the week, results in hours (car) compared to seconds (bike). The mile long tailback hyperbole noted in another comment almost certainly never happened. Whereas on I-40 – the one type of road that rightly does not allow bicycles – a mile long tailback means it’s one of the better Fridays for people driving from Chapel Hill to Raleigh.

    Oh, and a cyclist breaks the law? Book him, Danno. That said, given the human carnage from a high speed car accident, I’d prioritize speeding and motor vehicle offenses far ahead of cycling peccadilloes.

    Finally, unlike the fun that cyclists have, this bill is unnecessary and harmful.

  12. Thanks for your perspective. I have moved to the front of the line at stop lights or signs. If I don’t, when traffic starts I could be stranded at the light indefinitely, has been my thinking, but I will reexamine this and start staying in line to see how it goes. I get almost no feedback on my biking and so Thanks!

  13. […] wrote a post last January about proposed changes to the state’s traffic laws to address bicyclist safety and […]

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