NC DOT Pulls A Fast One
We’ve been watching the progress this year of an effort to improve bicycle safety in the state of North Carolina. And even if you don’t live in NC, or even visit our beautiful state, you might be interested to learn the latest chapter in this evolving story. Each state in the U.S. is aware of the others, and momentum for bicycle safety initiatives is often contagious. Such as the “3 Foot Passing Rule”, which has now spread to about half of the U.S. states.
So how it goes in NC, it may go in your favorite state. So keep reading.
In our state, there was an interesting development in this drama yesterday. It appears that NC DOT sent a “draft” report to the legislature that differs in subtle but important ways from the recommendations reached by majority vote in a months-long working group of a diverse set of experts.
Sent on December 22, with a short public comment period of 7 days, and due to be in legislator’s hands by December 31.
Unless I’m missing something, this certainly seemed to be an end-run around the democratic (majority vote) process of the Working Group as originally envisioned by NC legislators.
One might even speculate that NC DOT assumed we’d be sleeping, lulled into complacency during the holidays by sugar plums and Christmas lights.
What’s Going On?
Our state recently adopted a goal to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities, including people riding on bicycles. On average, 19 people are killed each year in NC when riding a bicycle — and while the majority of crashes occur in urban areas, the fatal crashes are more often in rural areas.
We will note that there were far more vehicular fatalities than bicycles, and the car remains the most dangerous place for you to be. But I digress.
Naturally, we looked forward with great anticipation when House Bill 232 spelled out a process for the appointment of a Working Group, and the assignment of key questions regarding the improvement of bicycle safety. The Working Group’s output would then become formal recommendations to the legislature for their process of changing the law.
Despite the last minute tactic yesterday, we applaud NC DOT for their continual and continuing efforts to make our roads safer. Thank you.
So what’s going on?
HB 232 created a “Working Group” comprised of 12 individuals, providing broad representation of various constituencies such as law enforcement (2), county government (2), academia/research, farming, trucking industry, bicycle industry, a bicycle event organizer, a bicycle advocacy organization, and NCDOT (2).
The Working Group met 4 times during 2015, from August to November, at NC DOT facilities.
While a facilitator was hired for the meetings and process, the final report would be authored and transmitted to the legislature by the NC DOT. Which is a significant part of our story.
The output of the Working Group was pretty darn good, all things and all constituencies considered. From my read of the minutes, many different points of view were considered… and plenty of research from within and outside of North Carolina was presented.
With plenty of compromises along the way.
A systematic process of considering the 3 issues that the legislature originally charged the group with considering, were covered, along with nine more topics not itemized in the original HB 232.
I’ll let you view the details yourself at this link, but in summary the lawmakers asked the working group to look at: 1) how vehicles should pass; 2) should riders be required to be in single file; 3) should riders be required to carry ID. Wide latitude was provided for investigating other issues, which ultimately numbered 12 topics.
When the final recommendations were unveiled, it became apparent that the report was not the result of the Working Group. Despite the title.
The Working Group was carefully designed and appointed to represent the various interests, and followed accepted procedures for first investigating, then debating, and then concluding upon a recommendation for each topic. You can read for yourself in the minutes how the discussion flowed, and how the recommendations made by the Working Group were considered and concluded. The report purports to be the result of that process.
But it isn’t. As you can clearly see in the report, each recommendation was delineated by what the Working Group recommended, and in several cases, what the NC DOT was recommending when NC DOT differed from the Working Group’s conclusion.
I certainly can imagine a legislator wondering whom to believe, the NC DOT, or the Working Group’s recommendation?
You can read the original charter, as outlined by the legislators, and there is no specific accommodation for a “differing” or “independent” view by NC DOT.
It appears that NC DOT simply inserted their opinion, regardless of the Working Group conclusion. This is an insult to the process, and presumes that somehow the NC DOT has a special, better, or otherwise privileged view of these important issues.
While I have personally been very impressed with numerous NC DOT employees, and their commitment to doing the right, safe thing… over and over… HB 232 was not the forum for NC DOT to make their solo conclusions.
Indeed, why have a Working Group, if NC DOT was going to come to their own conclusions, and present those to the legislature on an equal basis as the Working Group recommendations?
Surely NC DOT has many other opportunities to influence, inform and cajole the legislature. This report was supposed to be the product of the Working Group, not solely NC DOT.
I find it striking that the majority of the members of the Working Group are not avid cyclists. So it was not a forum biased in favor of people who ride bikes.
Where’s The Beef?
I agree and can support most of the recommendations in the draft report by NC DOT — there are 12 in all. And I appreciate the hard work by the (volunteer) Working Group members, the NC DOT staffers, and the various experts and advisors that informed them. Thank you, sincerely.
But I’ve got a beef with three of the NC DOT “recommendations” inserted among the Working Group’s recommendations. Specifically:
First, I disagree with NC DOT’s recommendation that people riding bicycles must stay to the right of their lane. This will get you killed.
In numerous situations, it is much safer for the person on the bicycle to be in the middle, or even the left side of their lane — to improve their visibility and be conspicuous to people driving vehicles.
Research and experience has made it very clear that limiting people on bicycles to any particular place in their lane make it more dangerous for them, as well as dangerous for people driving vehicles.
Examples of this include curvy roads in the Western North Carolina mountains, where the sightline ahead is restricted for the person driving the vehicle. A person on a bicycle “hugging” the right side of their lane is less visible, even if wearing high-visibility clothing and flashing lights activated in the day time. By riding in the middle of the lane, or the left side of the lane, the person on the bicycle can improve the sightline (lengthen it) for the person driving the vehicle.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the NC DOT recommendation… is the behavior it encourages in people driving vehicles. I have seen people driving vehicles pass people on bicycles in a very unsafe manner countless times, both when I was driving a vehicle and when I was riding a bicycle. It is obvious to me that when a person on a bicycle “hugs” the lane to the far right, people driving vehicles are somehow encouraged to attempt to pass whether or not it is safe. In other words: to “squeeze” by.
When I ride my bicycle in the middle of the lane, rather than the far right of my lane, approximately 19 out of 20 people driving cars will follow me at my speed, and wait until they have a clear sightline, and then pass me safely.
If I ride on the far right of my lane, it is the opposite: only 1 out of 20 people driving cars will wait for a safe passing opportunity… the other 19 will “squeeze” by… even with absolutely no sightline (in a curve, coming to a rise in the road, etc).
I come by these numbers from first-hand experience. I keep count of illegal and unsafe passing, versus legal and safe passing by people driving vehicles.
The consequences of staying to the right are severe: just last week, I was riding to the far right of my lane, and a young man in an older car started to pass me, without an adequate sightline. When oncoming traffic came into view from the opposite direction, he abruptly swerved back into my lane and skidding his tires and coming to a stop. The squealing tires and his movement into my lane forced me off the road — had I held my original position, he would have hit me, based on where his vehicle ultimately came to a halt.
As I left the road, I fell into a drainage ditch. My bicycle suffered minor damage, and I was bruised. All because he did not wait for a clear sightline before attempting his passing.
I will also point out that I have very powerful front and rear lights, literally equivalent in brightness to an automobile’s headlights, and I had these lights activated even though it was daytime. I was wearing a high visibility helmet (neon yellow-green), similar jacket, and even my socks were high visibility.
After the incident, the young man told me that he saw me, but he thought he could pass when he should not have (his statement to me when we discussed the incident). Apparently, my placement on the far right of the road must have “encouraged” him to attempt a pass when it was unsafe for both of us.
In my experience, the NC DOT recommendation, if implemented, will actually cause more poor behavior by people driving vehicles, not less.
Used without permission from IamTraffic.org
Riding Two Abreast
Second, I disagree with NC DOT’s recommendation that people riding bicycles not operate more than two abreast. Even in a “small” group of 5 to 10 people riding bicycles, there are times when it is more safe and more efficient for the group to gather closely together, say to wait at a stoplight and then to proceed through on the green light.
If made to line up in sets of two, or worse, single file… there may not be sufficient time when the light turns green to even get the whole group through the light — which in turn will cause even more frustration for people driving vehicles behind the cyclists.
There are numerous other examples of why this isn’t a good idea.
The Working Group provided a recommendation: that education be used to improve behavior and techniques, to minimize danger and increase the safe flow of traffic. NC DOT is off the mark by recommending a specific number of acceptable bicycle positions.
Local Government Supervising Rides
Third, I disagree with NC DOT’s recommendation requesting legislation so that local governments in North Carolina would “register” informal group rides as small as 30 people on bicycles (again, NC DOT’s recommendation is in opposition to the Working Group’s recommendation).
While this recommendation may have been well-intended, supposedly to ease the “angst” between people who drive vehicles and people who ride bicycles, it is too vague to be helpful to legislators — particularly those legislators with little or no experience with informal group bicycle rides.
The legislators deserve specific recommendations based on deep experience with the problem at hand. Asking the legislature to enable any local government to “register” (presumably these means regulate, control and administer) group bicycle rides further places responsibility for bicycle events on local officials who may be poorly equipped to take the responsibility.
I have helped organize bicycle rides for small groups of 5 to 10 people (about 1,000 rides in the past several years) and I have been responsible for safety planning and operations of numerous large bicycle events (300 to 1,000 riders). I think I can speak for all of us who lead bicycle rides and organize events when I say that safety is our #1 priority. And we are all very, very aware that driver-rider frustration is a key component of hosting a safe bike ride and a safe bike event.
Frankly, dangerous events are ultimately unsuccessful. Of all constituencies, we organizers may have perhaps the strongest motivation to conduct safe rides and events.
So why invite local government to take a deeper role in attempting to “improve” something they don’t know much about, are not funded to administer, and for which vague guidance is offered from NC DOT?
In an era of heightened scrutiny on the cost of government, this NC DOT recommendation seems headed in the wrong direction: towards bigger government, attempting to do more and spend more, not less.
How Does This Story End?
As with so much of our democratic process, this is a journey, not a destination. In other words, it’s not over. And I certainly don’t know how it will end.
But prior experience indicates that the legislature will now consider this report, and contemplate changing the existing laws, adding new laws, or removing existing laws. The report provides only input; the legislators will determine exactly how the law will be changed, if at all.
Any and all comments provided by the public between now and December 29, 2015 will be added to the report sent to the legislature.
Public input has been scarce and limited, especially since we placed much of our responsibility in the hands of the Working Group earlier in this year.
Now that the NC DOT has opted to insert their own point of view… you are absolutely encouraged to insert your point of view, whether in support of NC DOT or in opposition.
Speak up! It is as simple as sending an email with your thoughts, on the three issues I’ve highlighted here, or really on anything bicycle/vehicle related… to this address:
If you want to read all of the material — read the current draft Appendix here. It contains the minutes of each of the 4 Working Group meetings, as well as a ton of great content from other states, current research, and visual images that help illuminate the issues considered by the Working Group.
I want to reiterate again my support for the hard-working NC DOT employees that help make our roads and highways safe, and are committed to reducing fatalities to zero. Thank you for your service.
By David Billstrom, safety director for Cycle to Farm and The Bookwalter Binge
bicycles are vehicles, I think you meant “motor” vehicles or automobiles
Thanks for sharing! Well written and great points to be taken into consideration!
Thank you David for this articulate analysis and sharing your professional perspective!