WRAL Investigates

Law, what's right agree: Drivers, cyclists share same rules on the road

Posted November 4, 2019 6:26 p.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2019 7:40 p.m. EST

Each year, approximately 1,000 cyclists in North Carolina are killed or seriously injured in accidents involving motor vehicles. Approximately 10% of those incidents happen in Wake County. As our roads get more crowded with vehicles and cyclists, those numbers will likely go up without a better understanding of the rules of the road.

Under North Carolina law, a bicycle on the road is deemed a “vehicle,” and the rider is supposed to follow the same rules as drivers – from maintaining a lane to signaling to stopping at signs and red lights. Most drivers don’t realize a cyclist is entitled to the full lane of travel, though they’re encouraged to stay to the right side of the lane to allow vehicles to pass.

Attorney and cyclist Ann Groninger says the sour relationships between cyclists and drivers go both ways.

"People complain all the time about bicyclists running lights, bicycles running stop signs, but if you stand on your neighborhood corner and watch how many cars blow through stop signs or come to a rolling stop, I think you'll see it a lot more from cars than bicyclists," she said.

When cyclists ride in groups, there's no state law limiting how many can ride side by side. But most riding groups encourage no more than two riders to be next to each other, unless they're passing other cyclists.

"A lot of time the tension results from drivers really having a lack of understanding about what they're supposed to do when they encounter a large groups of bicyclists," Groninger said.

A driver is allowed to pass a cyclist or group of cyclists on a solid double yellow line provided that there's a clear sight distance ahead. When passing, drivers should be at least 4 feet away from a cyclist.

The bottom line: Sharing the road is the law, and cyclists and drivers must obey the same rules and afford each other the same rights.

Andrea Thorne knows the pain of presumptive thinking, when both cyclists and drivers think they have the right of way. Thorne, paralyzed from the waist down when a driver hit her head-on in 2018 while she was riding in Wake County, suggests a better way.

"I think between the two, if they would share the road. Just think about the other,” she says.

“It’s like it happened so fast, and the car came out of nowhere,” Thorne says of the day that changed her life forever. “I think back to that day, of being able to swim and to bike and run … use my legs … and just how quickly it was taken away. My new life, my new life with wheels. So instead of having legs, I have wheels.”

WRAL contacted the Capital City Cycling to see what kind of interactions their members see on the road. Rider Jerry Jin shared several videos of the close encounters he’s witnessed. From cars cutting off cyclists in turn lanes, to vehicles passing cyclists and almost hitting other cars, the videos show terrifying close calls.

Determining who’s at fault in many of the cases comes down to a battle of words between riders and drivers. That’s why many cyclists are now equipping themselves with cameras to record the proof.

“The cyclist would be able to testify in court that they turned the GoPro on and witnessed what happened and then that video would be shown to back up their testimony. So, yep that can be used,” says attorney and avid cyclist Ann Groninger.

Thorne hopes her story will make cyclists and drivers more aware and more patient when sharing the roads.

“Because the driver thought that they had the most rights, more rights than I did as a cyclist – to pass a car, to get into my lane, to make all of these illegal decisions – and this is now the impact of it. They’ve forever changed a life,” she said.

The driver who hit Thorne was only charged with reckless driving, driving without a license and illegal passing. He has never reached out to see how Thorne is doing.

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