New NC bike law allows passing in no-passing zones, stiffens penalties for aggressive motorists

Many cyclists in North Carolina know all too well the chilly breeze that passes over them on narrow rural roads, when an impatient motorist whizzes by with few kind words for their mode of transportation.

If the center line is solid white or double yellow, drivers often are passing illegally.

But on Oct. 1, state law will change so drivers can pass slower-moving bicycles or mopeds in no-passing zones if the motorist gives a berth of at least 4 feet and if the cyclist is not making a left turn.

But aggressive motorists whose actions cause a cyclist to change travel lanes, leave the road or crash will suffer stiffer penalties, pay higher fines and possibly lose their driver’s license for several months, under the amended law.

Another change requires cyclists riding at night, effective Dec. 1, to add a light on the back of the bike to the one already required on the front – or wear a reflective vest or clothing that is visible from at least 300 feet to the rear. Hand signals have been clarified for cyclists who got used to throwing a right arm out to the side to indicate they were turning in that direction. Cyclists can legally use their right arm now or use their left arm for hand signals, pointing the hand straight up to indicate a right turn.

The new rules are part of a monthslong process that brought together cyclists, law enforcement officers, farmers, truckers and others who worked with the state Department of Transportation to study bike safety laws and develop recommendations for better ensuring the safety of cyclists and motorists along the roadway.

Among the issues studied:

▪ How faster-moving vehicles could pass bicycles on roadways where it might be difficult to see around curves.

▪ Whether cyclists should be required to ride single file or allowed to ride two or more abreast.;

▪ Whether cyclists had to carry an ID.

▪ Aggressive driving, harassment and distracted driving laws.

▪ Whether groups of riders needed a permit to travel together in large numbers.

Lisa Riegel, executive director of BikeWalk NC, is pleased with the changes to the law adopted this summer, but she has urged cyclists to remain alert to the potential for additional changes in the next legislative session that trouble some who use bicycles for commuting and recreation.

“When they first proposed the bill, we were concerned that they were trying to limit bicyclists,” Riegel said, recounting proposals that could have required groups to get permits to ride, as well as some talk about making cyclists get licenses to ride.

An average of 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.

Motorists and rural residents counter that cyclists riding in packs of 50 to 100 or in small groups two- to three-abreast on narrow roads can create traffic snarls and cause maddening delays. No-passing zones can stretch for miles on some winding roads, and cyclists acknowledge that road restrictions put in place for cars attempting to pass cars can be detrimental to four-wheelers and two-wheelers.

“The safe way to pass a bicyclist on those roads is to slow down, wait until no traffic is coming for a sufficient clear distance ahead, and move into the next lane to pass,” Steven Goodridge, a board member of BikeWalk NC and certified instructor, said recently. “Most motorists do exactly that .... Oftentimes the center line is solid, but because the bicyclist is traveling so slowly, it’s still sufficiently safe to pass if the clear sight distance is good.”

In the minds of some who regularly travel North Carolina’s many rural roads, there has been a war of the wheels going on for years.

In rural Orange County, Andrew Prokopetz pursued criminal charges two years ago against a pickup truck driver who he says intentionally slammed on his brakes in front of a pack of riders.

Prokopetz was sent tumbling to the pavement and was so scraped up and bruised that his shirt was shredded, his wedding ring was scratched, his finger was jammed and his ire provoked.

After several dates in criminal court and the prospect of a civil case, the man charged with using his truck as a weapon settled with the rider and issued an apology that left Prokopetz less than satisfied.

Many cyclists now equip their bikes with video cameras to catch aggressive drivers on tape.

Prokopetz does. “I still get buzzed regularly,” he said this week.

Riegel led a meeting in Carrboro on Monday night to explain the new parts of the law in a community where many bike to work and take to the rural roads in the mornings and evenings for recreational riding. Before state legislators return to work next year, Riegel hopes to develop a campaign to educate North Carolinians about how beneficial it can be for towns, cities and counties to develop transportation strategies that include bicycling as a mode being used more and more.

“We really need to work with the legislative leadership on that,” Riegel said.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1