New NC laws make roads safer for bicyclists

Oct 19, 2016

Credit NCDOT

We’ve all seen the bright yellow signs along eastern North Carolina roadways … “share the road.” 

“You’re going straight, and they pass you, and they turn in front of you. So you have to slam on your brakes because otherwise you’ll hit the car.”

Avid cyclist and New Bern resident Joe Baes rides about 100 miles a week, sometimes 2 or 300.

“Instead of freaking out, just… hey, pay attention to what you’re doing, be careful.  Then you get flipped off and then you drive away.”

Baes says he’s only had a few interactions like this.  A far more common issue bicyclist encounter are distracted drivers.

“You just have to be careful right now with the texters.  You just never know, you see people weaving on the road and it’s pretty dangerous.”

Distracted drivers are a danger to all.  Last year, there were a total of 621 crashes involving bicyclists and motorists.  18 of those were fatal.  Many accidents occur when a car is turning at a driveway or intersection. They also happen when a driver makes a lane change without signaling. Baes had close calls himself and knows others seriously injured.

“One of them actually had a light on his bike, he was riding early in the morning. And someone… it was a hit and run.  He hit the guy, broke his pelvis and he was out for a while.  Took him a few months to come back from that one.  Another guy right here in River Bend, he had a minor incident, he had injured himself just because of the fall.”

Incidents like that are trending downward according to Ed Johnson, the acting director of the State Transportation Department’s Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation.

“We’re down percentage wise for severe injuries and fatalities four percent this year.”

Numbers could decrease even more, thanks to recent changes in a traffic law that aims to make the roads more bike friendly.  House Bill 959 became State Law 2016-90 in July. The measure took effect October 1st.  When riding at night, bike commuters must have a lighted lamp on the front and a red light on the rear of the bike that must be visible up to 300 feet, or the operator must wear a reflective vest.  Johnson says the requirement is a result of a statewide safety campaign “Watch For Me NC” that promotes bicycle and pedestrian safety.  He says law enforcement will be issuing “false tickets” for bicyclist without proper gear.

“And the ticket itself has the bike laws and policies on each side so it can provide an educational opportunity as well as an encouragement opportunity for the cyclist or pedestrian.  So we’re really looking for that as trying to instead of issue a citation or even a fine, but we’re trying to have a positive engagement between law enforcement and the user.”

The change will mostly affect casual riders, since cyclists like Baes already wear bright colored clothing when riding in the afternoon and night and have reflective gear and LED lights on their bikes. 

“I think it will really help, I have a small red one on the back of this bike and that little red light will go a long ways.”

Baes is all for increasing visibility at night.  As a motorist, he’s had a couple of white knuckle moments.

“It scares me, when I see people riding, they’re wearing jeans, a black t-shirt, no lights and some with no reflectors.  And when I come upon that, it surprises me especially at night.  I’m looking for it and I see it.  And I think if somebody’s not looking for it, they’re not going to (either).”

According to statistics from NCDOT, most bicycle related accidents occur in the afternoon and evening, when motorists are commuting home from work.  Johnson says a change to the law that took affect October 1st allows motorists to safely pass someone on a bike. 

“A bicyclist or moped that proceeding in the same direction as the faster moving vehicle, the faster moving vehicle can pass the cyclist or the moped and give them, by law, four feet.  Or they also can move into or cross over the double yellow line in order to give that safe distance of crossing around a cyclist or someone on a moped.”

Drivers are still prohibited from passing in a portion of highway marked with signs or markers indicating that passing should not be attempted.  If a bicyclist changes lanes or goes off the side of the road to avoid an accident, the motorist could be fined no less than $200.  If there’s a crash resulting in property damage or injury, there’s a penalty of $500 or more. 

Another section of the new law deals with increasing communication between drivers and bicyclists.  In addition to turning signals, drivers must now use hand signals when turning or stopping.

“Motorists using the left hand to extend their arm in a horizontal way and pointing with their forefinger that they’re indicating a left turn.  Or even with their right turn, that their upper arm with a horizontal forearm and their hand pointed upward that they’re going to indicate a right turn.  And the stop would be the opposite of that, the upper arm horizontal to the forearm and hand pointed down.”

The measure requiring hand signaling and allowing drivers to cross the center line took affect October 1st.  The rule requiring a bicyclist to wear a reflective vest or attach lights and reflectors to their bike will become effective December 1st.  The law change come on the heels of Gov. Pat McCrory’s new initiative Vision Zero which sets the goal to eliminate roadway fatalities in North Carolina.