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DOT's Cycling Recommendations Offer Big Changes - And Spark Debate

WFAE file photo
A group ride in Charlotte last year.

If you spend any time on our roads, you know they can be an unpleasant experience. There’s annoying traffic, potholes, and frustration with other drivers – and that’s whether you’re a motorist or a cyclist.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has recommended several changes to state law that aim to improve safety for cyclists and motorists as they share the road.

But some of the recommendations show the schism that exists between transportation officials and cycling groups.

WFAE's Greg Collard spoke to All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey about these recommendations. The following is a transcript of the segment.

Mark: What prompted the Department of Transportation to look at updating the laws concerning motorists and bicyclists?

Greg: Lawmakers, for one. The General Assembly last year told the DOT to study cycling laws and make recommendations for change – and to do so with input from a committee that represents several interests such as cyclists, the trucking industry, law enforcement and transportation officials.

A big impetus for this review is the number of crashes involving motorists and cyclists. North Carolina averages about 665 crashes a year that result in 19 cyclist deaths a year, according to the DOT.

Mark: So what are the recommendations?

Greg: Well, there are the recommendations that DOT is making in agreement with the study committee, and recommendations that run counter to the committee’s wishes.

An example of the latter concerns side-by-side, or “two abreast” cycling. The committee studied whether bicyclists should be required to ride single file or continue to be allowed to ride two or more abreast. The committee voted unanimously that there should be no change.

The DOT, however, wants lawmakers to prohibit cyclists from riding more than two abreast, except when passing. Now, at first glance this might not seem like a big deal. Cycling advocates generally recommend riding two abreast. But the Steven Goodridge of BikeWalk NC, and a committee member, says the problem comes with enforcement. He says police sometimes interpret this type of limitation to mean cyclists have to ride single file. He says these misinterpretations occur because cyclists are often victims of prejudice or harassment.

He says it’s also appropriate to ride 3 or 4 abreast when stopping and starting at intersections, because that gets cyclists through an intersection faster, which is in the best interest of motorists, too.

Mark: Cyclists do have a right to the road, but there’s a debate over where they should be riding on the road…

Greg – Right, and that debate will continue. The DOT wants to require cyclists to ride on the right half of the farthest right travel lane. Many cyclists don’t like this recommendation, such as Pamela Murray of the group Charlotte Spokes People. She says it’s a safety issue.

“When you ride that far right, a lot of motorists will pull forward to look around an obstruction when pulling out, so you’re going to subject yourself to a pullout risk, pedestrians stepping off sidewalks, subject yourself to parked cars if there’s doors there.” Pamela Murray, Charlotte Spokes People

From the DOT’s perspective, it’s also a safety issue. State Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacy says it’s important for motorists to know where to expect cyclists. He notes that current law only says bicyclists must be as far right as practicable.

How far right is that? Two feet from the curb? Is that one foot from the curb? Is that riding on curb? Is that riding on the edge line? What we’re proposing is that you go ahead and define the space and say, ‘You know what. The right half of that travel lane is where a single cyclist, or if you ride a single file, that’s where we’d expect to see you. Kevin Lacy, NCDOT Traffic Engineer

And Lacy says the right side of the lane can be as close to the center as cyclists want, and in areas where there are obstructions such as the potential for doors opening, cyclists would be able to adjust because the travel lane would effectively taken away from them. On rural roads, he says this usually won’t be an issue.

Mark: So where is there agreement between the DOT and cycling advocates?

Greg: There is definitely some agreement.

For one, the DOT is proposing legislation that would give motorists permission to cross double-yellow lines when passing bicyclists. These safety lines were painted with the assumption that motorists would only be passing other motorists, but cyclists aren’t going to be traveling 55 mph. It doesn’t take as long to pass cyclists, so the DOT agrees with the committee that drivers should be allowed to cross these lines to safely pass cyclists.

The DOT is also recommending to lawmakers that vehicles be at least four feet to the side of cyclists when passing. This is a big change from the current passing zone requirement, which is only two feet.  This recommendation is significant for Bart Stetler of the Charlotte cycling group Crank Mafia. He says most states only require a 3-foot passing zone.

But he is especially glad that DOT is recommending that cyclists be given the same protection as motorcyclists. He says this means drivers can be held accountable.

“Whenever there’s an accident between a car and bicycle, there’s this one little excuse called 'I didn’t see them' that always seems to take precedence that prevents charges from being brought, and in cases where people were killed, ‘they didn’t see them.’ So they weren’t prosecuted.” Bart Stetler, Crank Mafia

Mark: So what’s next?

Greg: Now it’s up to lawmakers. They’ll take a look at these and other recommendations this year and we’ll see what they do with them.

And no doubt, they’ll be getting a lot more feedback.

Greg has been with WFAE since 2008 as news director, and was named executive editor in 2023. He came to WFAE from West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In his eight years there, Greg had roles as a reporter, editor and producer. He was the executive producer of a television newsmagazine and news director for radio and television when he decided to head south for Charlotte.