The Third in Three articles on N.C. Traffic Laws
Crafting laws and ordinances to allow pedestrians, bicycles and drivers to co-exist safely is often a difficult balancing act. Davidson has always been a bike-friendly community that describes itself as “built for pedestrians and bike riders, not for the car.” The town now is drafting an Active Transportation Plan that recommends infrastructure improvements as well as more education about bike and pedestrian safety. Cornelius has addressed bike and pedestrian accessibility in its Comprehensive Master Plan. But what does North Carolina law say about bicycles?
Under North Carolina law, bicycles are treated as vehicles. Cyclists must obey all motor vehicle traffic laws “except those which by their nature can have no application” to bicycles. This means that cyclists must obey all traffic signs and signals, including stop signs and red lights. The law requires cyclists to use hand gestures or other recognizable means to signal their intentions to turn or change lanes. Cyclists are also required to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians walking on a roadway, sidewalk or in a crosswalk. Like drivers, cyclists need to pay attention to the bright orange crossing flags recently installed at crosswalks around Davidson. When riding at night, cyclists must have a front light that is visible from 300 feet and a rear reflector that is visible from at least 200 feet.
Sharing the road and passing bicycles – what are the rules?
The most important rule is that all vehicles are treated equally. Bicycles and cars are different, but they are both vehicles, so the rules for passing one another are essentially the same. Drivers can get frustrated when they find themselves behind a cyclist or group of cyclists on a narrow road. Cyclists frequently are put at risk when car drivers fail to leave enough space when passing. Because the stakes of a collision are much higher for the bike rider than the car driver, the “Guide to North Carolina Bicycle and Pedestrian Laws” says it’s the car driver’s responsibility to avoid collisions.
Because they move more slowly, cyclists are required to ride in the right lane. Although North Carolina has a law that requires slow moving vehicles to drive “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway,” it is not clear that this law applies to bicycles. We read that statute to apply to single-lane roads, not roads with two or more lanes of travel. The “North Carolina Drivers’ Handbook” appears to agree with our interpretation, stating that cyclists “are entitled to use the full lane.”
Many motorists assume that cyclists must use bike lanes and travel single file to avoid slowing traffic. This is not the case. North Carolina law does not require cyclists to use bike paths, nor are they required to ride single file. Vehicles are entitled to use the full lane, if more the one bicycle can fit in a lane, there is no violation created by riding in a group.
When passing any vehicle (including a bicycle), North Carolina law requires the overtaking driver to “pass at least two feet to the left thereof, and shall not again drive to the right side of the highway until safely clear of such overtaken vehicle.” Because bikes are so much smaller than cars, some drivers may be tempted to pass a bicycle without changing lanes. As a practical matter, most travel lanes are simply not wide enough to allow single lane passing while complying with the legally required two-foot buffer. Just as you would never attempt to pass another car without changing lanes, you should not attempt to pass a bicycle without changing lanes. Once a driver begins to pass another vehicle, the vehicle being passed – and this includes bicycles – must yield to the passing vehicle. This is the type of situation where a cyclist should move to the right side of the road to assist the passing driver.
For the safety of other drivers, the law prohibits passing any vehicle unless the opposite lane of traffic “is clearly visible and free of oncoming traffic.” Passing is not allowed where the NC DOT has placed “signs, markers or markings . . . indicating that passing should not be attempted.” According to the North Carolina Drivers’ Handbook, a double-yellow line indicates a place where “passing is always unsafe and usually illegal.” If oncoming traffic has to dodge your car while you are passing a bicycle, you have broken the law.
Are there any restrictions on where cyclists can ride their bikes?
Because bicycles are considered vehicles, you might assume that bicycles, like cars, are prohibited from sidewalks. This is not the case. North Carolina defers to local jurisdictions to establish restrictions on the operation of bicycles on sidewalks. In Davidson, it is unlawful to ride a bicycle on any sidewalk “on the west side of Main Street from the town hall to Griffith Street,” on Depot Street, or any other street where the chief of police has posted a sign prohibiting the operation of bicycles. Cornelius takes a more free-wheeling attitude toward bicycles and has not adopted any specific ordinance prohibiting bicycles on sidewalks. Bicycles are not allowed on limited access highways like I-77.
Do I need to wear a helmet when riding my bike?
Under North Carolina’s Child Bicycle Safety Act of 2001, children under 16 years of age must wear a helmet when riding a bike. Child bike passengers who weigh less than 40 pounds, or are less than 40 inches in height, must be carried in a separate restraining seat or bicycle trailer. Parents who permit their child to violate these restrictions are subject to a $10 fine.
Cornelius has passed a law which expands the helmet requirement to cover in-line skates, roller skates, skateboards and scooters. Violations of the Cornelius ordinance are subject to a $25 fine. Under both the state law and the Cornelius ordinance, fines for first time offenders are waived upon proof of purchase of (and intent to use) a safety helmet. Even though the law does not require adults to wear helmets while riding a bicycle, the NC DOT strongly urges all cyclists to wear a proper helmet.
Do North Carolina’s distracted driving laws apply to bicycles?
We discussed North Carolina’s distracted driving laws in our June column. Had we not actually seen a cyclist texting while riding on Concord Road, we would not have even thought to address this issue. The law prohibiting texting while driving applies to all vehicles, so texting while biking is against the law.
Can’t we all get along?
Sometimes all it takes to improve strained relations is to see the issue from the other person’s point of view. If you are a bike rider, you may want to consider the suggestions on the City of Greensboro’s bicycle etiquette web page. Motorists can benefit from reading this blog on bicycling.com.
If you have a legal question of general interest, please send us an email (email@example.com) and we might use your question in an upcoming column.
See past Common Laws columns
See coverage of cycling and cycling related incidents on DavidsonNews.net.
See coverage of cycling and cycling related incidents on CorneliusNews.net.
David and Lyn Batty live in Davidson and as lawyers, they also want you to read this disclaimer: We write this Common Laws column for informational purposes only. This column is not legal advice and it should not be relied on for making any decisions that may affect your rights. If you need legal advice regarding a specific situation you should consult a lawyer. No attorney-client relationship is created with any of our readers. Although we try to ensure that the information we provide is accurate, we disclaim any liability for inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date information appearing in this column.