H232 Study Postmortem

by Steven Goodridge

Summary:

  • The H232 Bicycle Safety Laws Study Committee made good recommendations, but three of them were rejected by the author of NCDOT’s report on the study, who based on their personal opinion made recommendations that interfere with established best practices for safe bicycling, encourage conflicts between police and cyclists, and discourage group cycling.
  • The Study Report’s recommendation for a new law that limits bicyclists’ road use to the right half of a marked travel lane conflicts with defensive bicycle driving practices taught nationwide and with lane positioning guidance given in the 2013 ITE Traffic Control Devices Handbook.
  • The Study Report’s recommendation for a new law that restricts how bicyclists may operate side by side within a single marked lane creates enforcement dilemmas (which cyclist is at fault?) and sets the stage for a more onerous restriction from unfriendly members of the legislature.
  • The Study Report’s recommendation for a new law that promotes local regulation and permit requirements for informal group rides will deter group bicycling by adding onerous bureaucratic hurdles, and making it particularly difficult for cyclists to ride long distances through multiple municipalities that will have separate and unique permit processes.

Many cyclists are asking me how the H232 Bicycle Safety Laws Study conducted by NCDOT resulted in a Study Report recommending new laws that, if enacted, would make cycling in North Carolina less safe and more difficult.  As a member of the H232 Study Committee that reached conclusions that are substantially different from what NCDOT recommended in its study report, I decided it is important to document some of the back story for posterity. For reference, the committee meeting minutes and related documents can be found at NCDOT’s site.

First off, one should understand that the real impetus behind H232 was not bicyclist safety, but a desire to increase convenience for motorists on rural roads used by bicyclists. The legislators who sponsored the bill were responding to complaints from rural motorists who have been temporarily delayed by bicycle traffic, and so they crafted the bill to study possible law changes that could address the following itemized issues:

(1) How faster-moving vehicles may safely overtake bicycles on roadways where sight distance may be inhibited.
(2) Whether bicyclists on a roadway should be required to ride single file or allowed to ride two or more abreast.
(3) Whether bicyclists should be required to carry a form of identification.

The last item was likely a softened response to demands by some motorists that bicyclists be licensed in order to use public roads. The H232 study had enough political momentum from motoring interests that we bicyclist advocates knew it would happen no matter what. Our mission would therefore be a defensive one, to limit the damage to bicyclists’ safety and travel rights given a committee makeup that was not designed to provide cyclists or cycling safety experts a particularly strong representation, to put it mildly. I was lucky to be elected to the committee.

The H232 committee meetings went surprisingly well for bicyclists. Most of the other committee members also happened to enjoy bicycling, and were sincerely concerned about bicyclist safety. By using an evidence-based approach and explaining best practices for bicycling that are consistent with all of the established adult bicycling education programs in North America and Britain, I was able to persuade the majority of the committee that it would be unsafe to encourage motorists to pass within the same lane as a bicyclist on most narrow-laned state roads.  (A few other commitee members reinforced this with descriptions of their own cycling experiences). I presented two concepts of operation for motorists passing bicyclists: same-lane passing, and next-lane passing. The geometry of state roads is quite clear: there isn’t room for a safe same-lane pass, and therefore, drivers must yield to traffic in the next lane before passing bicyclists. Furthermore, I was able to convince most of the committee that it is generally safer for bicyclists to actively deter unsafe same-lane passing in narrow lanes by riding in the center of a travel lane or riding two abreast. (Again, some of the other members who ride supported my claim with their personal stories.) The complete lack of any evidence of crashes involving motorists in North Carolina hitting two-abreast cycling groups from behind may have helped.

Unfortunately, I was not quite as successful at convincing H232 committee member and NCDOT State Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacy. Mr. Lacy was absent from the second committee meeting during my presentation on lane control and riding side-by-side, and did not attend the final meeting where the committee discussed the issues further and developed a consensus that no new regulations were desired on the issues of riding side-by-side or bicyclist lane position. Mr. Lacy also expressed his opinion that new restrictions on group bicycling were necessary in order to keep traffic moving at desired speeds. The majority of the committee did not think such regulation was appropriate at this time, and favored further study of the issue and an educational approach to improving group cycling behavior.

It turned out that despite his absences, Mr. Lacy’s minority opinions on these matters would have greater impact on the recommendations in NCDOT’s study report than many of us thought. When I asked Lauren Blackburn, Director of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Division, who would write the report, she said she was unsure. The language in the published report suggests that Mr. Lacy was a significant author or directed the content. NCDOT’s draft report recommends new laws contrary to the Committee’s positions: Item 7 of the report recommends a new law restricting bicyclists to the right half of a travel lane; Item 8 recommends a new law allowing municipalities to require permits for informal group rides; Item 2 recommends a new law limiting how bicyclists may operate side-by-side.

Recommendation 7: Operating Position on Roadway

Bicyclist lane position was not an issue explicitly specified for study in HB232. Kevin Lacy brought it up during the first meeting when members were asked what additional items they wished to cover in the study. No other committee members expressed a desire to discuss regulating bicyclist lane position. All the others appeared satisfied with the relevant law as it exists today. The topic was put at a low priority level to be addressed later during the study if we had time remaining. At multiple times over the course of the study, Mr. Lacy expressed a desire to keep bicyclists at the edge of the road to prevent them from delaying motorists. He also claimed that this would prevent rear-end collisions of bicyclists due to bicyclists’ low speed. This was interesting, since his claims conflicted with the guidance on bicyclist lane positioning that appear in the 2013 ITE Traffic Control Devices Handbook and the placement of many shared lane markings (aka sharrows) in narrow travel lanes throughout Raleigh.

Bicyclist lane position was added to the agenda for the last meeting, I suspect at Mr. Lacy’s request since it seemed to be a priority to him. When I saw the agenda, I emailed the Committee Chair Jim Westmoreland (as well as the moderator and Lauren Blackburn) and said that I had a 15 minute presentation prepared on the topic of lane position. Jim Westmoreland replied that we would probably not address the topic at the meeting. It turned out that Mr. Lacy did not attend that meeting. When Jim Westmoreland brought up the agenda item, he asked if the committee thought there was anything about the topic that we wanted to discuss, and if we were satisfied with the law as it exists. Nobody wanted to discuss the topic or to change the law. The committee voted unanimously to recommend no change to existing law on bicyclist lane position.

From the NCDOT Report: NCDOT recommends that cyclists, when riding single abreast or independently, ride on the right half of the right most travel lane, where clear and safe to do so. This recommendation may be folded into education materials as a best practice, or may be considered as a statutory amendment. The following language is recommended if statutory language is considered:
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.

Recommendation 8: Informal Group Rides

Another special topic that Kevin Lacy raised as being of interest to him was requiring permits for group rides, which he equated to races, and repeatedly referred to as a “repurposing of the highway.” Fred Burt was the only other committee member who wanted the committee to address the issue with a regulatory recommendation. Over multiple meetings both Kevin Lacy and Fred Burt advocated for restrictions on group cycling, in terms of group size, road characteristics and times. The committee voted at the second meeting to recommend that NCDOT examine the existing permit process for races and other road closure events to address problems that have been reported with such events, such as improper information being given to residents, and excessive duration road closures. Additional examination of the topic of group ride regulation was postponed until after discussion of riding abreast, which the committee ultimately decided should be allowed at the last committee meeting. At that last committee meeting, which Kevin Lacy did not attend, Fred Burt brought up the issue of restricting group rides again, but conceded that the overwhelming majority of the committee opposed recommending new restrictions on group cycling or new permit procedures. The committee decided to take no action on restricting group rides, and instead voted to recommend that NCDOT develop an education program for best practices for safe group cycling.

From the NCDOT Report: NCDOT also recommends further discussion about larger group bicycle rides not required to secure a special event permit. The General Assembly may consider enabling legislation for local governments to register informal group rides. Any such legislation should apply to groups of more than 30 cyclists riding for recreational purposes, in a continuous formation, and causing significant delay to traffic flow or preventing safe passing. A group ride that routinely creates queues of vehicles waiting to pass on higher speed roadways should adhere to existing bicycle racing laws, acquiring the necessary permits issued by local or state agencies. 

Recommendation 2: Riding Two or More Abreast

After much incremental discussion over multiple meetings, on the last day the group held a final discussion on riding abreast, which was a core issue identified in H232. Jim Westmoreland asked each committee member to express their position on riding abreast. No member recommended changing the existing law to restrict riding two abreast. (My major concern about any legislation regarding riding abreast – even explicitly allowing it – is that the legislature would amend it to mandate moving to single file, for instance if a car approaches.) Nearly all of the committee members supported the idea of riding two abreast as a defensive bicycling practice. At Jim Westmoreland’s invitation, I made a motion that the group recommend that no new regulation of riding abreast be made, that the record state that the committee is satisfied with the existing law, and that NCDOT develop and implement an education plan related to best practices for group cycling. The motion was amended to include education of motorists about respecting bicyclists on the road. The vote was called, and it was unanimous in favor.

From the NCDOT Report: NCDOT recommends that the legislature consider adopting language similar to the following: Bicyclists shall not operate more than two abreast in a single marked travel lane on public roadways except when overtaking another bicyclist. Bicyclists shall not move left, change formation, or otherwise interfere with a vehicle performing a safe pass.

Upon reading the draft report, I became particularly worried about NCDOT’s Recommendation 7: Operating Position on the Roadway. If enacted into law, it would interfere with my ability to practice defensive bicycle driving, particularly in narrow lanes and at intersections, and inhibit my ability to teach important safety techniques to my cycling students or to police.  I immediately emailed a complaint about it to NCDOT, copying Mr. Lacy. Below is our email exchange, in chronological order; it may be of interest to those who hope to persuade Mr. Lacy or to understand his position:


 

From: Steven Goodridge <steven.goodridge@gmail.com>
Date: Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 6:01 AM
Subject: Re: H 232 draft report and appendix
To: “Blackburn, Lauren A” <lablackburn2@ncdot.gov>

Lauren,

BikeWalk NC strongly opposes the following NCDOT recommendation in the draft report; it is completely unacceptable and we will mobilize to stop it at every opportunity:

“NCDOT Recommendation: NCDOT recommends that cyclists, when riding single abreast or independently, ride on the right half of the right most travel lane, where clear and safe to do so. This recommendation may be folded into education materials as a best practice, or may be considered as a statutory amendment. The following language is recommended if statutory language is considered: “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.”

For NCDOT to make this recommendation without proper discussion by the committee, and after denying BikeWalk NC’s multiple requests to speak about the topic, is in my opinion, irresponsible and reprehensible.

When the topic of bicyclist position on the roadway had been placed on the agenda for our last meeting, I requested 15 minutes of time during the meeting to present the committee with best practices for bicyclist positioning in traffic, consistent with the curriculum taught by all of the major recognized adult bicycling education programs in North America and Britain (LAB Traffic Skills 101, CyclingSavvy, IPMBA, CAN-BIKE, and British Cycling Bikeability). I felt strongly that discussion of NCDOT’s proposals for new restrictions on bicycling for the purpose of increasing motor vehicle speeds should include consideration of potential negative implications for highly effective defensive bicycling practices used by knowledgeable cyclists to prevent crashes.

The slides that I had prepered for my presentation can be seen here:
https://s3.amazonaws.com/BikeWalkNC/Docs/BikeLawStudy/LanePosition.pdf
https://s3.amazonaws.com/BikeWalkNC/Docs/BikeLawStudy/LanePosition.ppt

Also, I remind the committee of BikeWalk NC’s previously referenced paper on the history of stay right laws:
http://www.bikewalknc.org/2015/11/the-evolution-of-stay-right-laws/

In summary, NCDOT’s recommended stay-right law will interfere with defensive bicycle driving practices that require bicyclists to use the center or left half of a marked travel lane to improve their safety, such as when controlling a travel lane at an intersection and improving their visibility to traffic that may turn left or pull out in front of them.

Additionally, BikeWalk NC does not support NCDOT’s recommendation on legislation limiting riding abreast, and we feel that NCDOT’s recommendation on rear night visibility is inadequate; specifically the requirement of visibility to only 200 feet. Sweden, for example, requires 1000 feet. We think long range visibility is required to support Vision Zero given the vehicle speeds on state roads.

Steven Goodridge


From: Lacy, Kevin <jklacy1@ncdot.gov>
Date: Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 10:06 AM
Subject: RE: H 232 draft report and appendix
To: Steven Goodridge <steven.goodridge@gmail.com>

Steven,
The idea is if there is a single cyclist or if a group riding single file, then the conspicuity of the rider is lower than if they were riding two abreast. The language removes the requirement to stay as far right as practical, and says use the right 50% of the lane. That is from the middle to the right edge, UNLESS the rider can operate in 15 mph of the posted speed limit. The current law gives them the right to be further left for turning or passing.

I did not see any examples in your presentation that would not work in the proposed language. In a 11 foot travel lane with parked vehicles on the paved shoulder, riding 5 ½ feet from the centerline should provide adequate room to avoid the door zone. Riding in the right 50% includes the center.

Are you saying that the recommendation is worse than current law?


 

From: Steven Goodridge <steven.goodridge@gmail.com>
Date: Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 10:49 AM

Kevin,

Situations where riding on the left half of a marked lane is recommended include:

1. To improve visibility when approaching a location where a driver may pull out from a side street or driveway (page 18 of my presentation).

2. To improve visibility when approaching a location where an oncoming driver may turn left in front of the bicyclist ( page 19).

3. To avoid being right-hooked at a location where right turns are permitted (page 8).

4. Where lane width fluctuates (page 16).

Operating in the center of a marked travel lane, as opposed to the right half of a lane, is recommended when using a travel lane that is too narrow to share side by side with a motor vehicle safely, as discussed on pages 10-16. Police officers who see a bicyclist operating in the center of a marked travel lane will consider this position to be contrary to NCDOT’s recommended requirement that bicyclists use the right half of a marked lane. Operating in the center of a marked lane will also involve occasional movements left of the center of the lane in the process of maintaining balance and responding to surface hazards, or as the position of the right edge of the lane fluctuates. https://s3.amazonaws.com/BikeWalkNC/Docs/BikeLawStudy/LanePosition.pdf

Cities such as Raleigh are positioning shared lane markings in the center of narrow and marginal width travel lanes to encourage lane control; the 2013 ITE Traffic Control Devices Handbook recommends this positioning, as well as guidelines for determining the effective lane width that remains outside of the door zone of parked cars. This discussion in the ITE Handbook was included specifically to counter the widespread misconception that riding in the right half of a narrow or marginal width lane is safe enough for the government to encourage or require.

NCDOT’s proposed restriction is much worse than existing law. The existing law requires slow operators to use the right hand marked through lane if lanes are marked, or operate as close to the right hand side as practicable if no lane marking exists. Currently, bicyclists who use the center or left half of a marked travel lane are not being ticketed by police; in the rare occasion that police stop them, a discussion ensues and the police decide not to issue a ticket upon examination of the law. NCDOT’s proposal will encourage police to ticket any bicyclist who is not staying clearly to the right in a marked lane. It is inconsistent with best practices for defensive bicycle driving, conflicts with recommended positioning of shared lane markings, and would interfere with any application of Bicycles May Use Full Lane signage.

BikeWalk NC recommends no new restrictions on where within a marked travel lane bicyclists may operate. Most complaints from motorists about bicyclist lane position involve lanes that are too narrow for same-lane passing to be safe, i.e. where a cyclist should be allowed to control a travel lane by driving in its center. A motorist should use the next lane to pass by waiting for the next lane to be clear in these situations. On exceptional roads with adequate pavement for safe same-lane passing, solo bicyclists will practically always move to the right when they deem it safe to do so.

NCDOT’s proposal doesn’t solve any significant real-world problems in a safe and practical manner.

Steve


Several of the report recommendations, where NCDOT supported the committee recommendations, are good for bicyclists and supportive of bicyclist safety. Legalizing moving left of center to pass a bicyclist in a no-passing-zone when safe opens up a meaningful public dialog about safe passing, and how lane changes are preferred over unsafe same-lane passing in narrow lanes. We’ve started the legal discussion about rear lighting and use of the right arm for signaling right turns. However, the problematic NCDOT recommendations discussed above represent a major setback if not rectified before the Legislature takes action on the study.

See related action alert here.

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