In the span of a week, two cyclists from different parts of the state have asked NCATA (1) whether state law allows or prohibits riding wider than single file (e.g. two abreast), and (2) whether a town can create local regulations to require single file cycling.
Here is our response, as experienced cyclist safety advocates who have worked extensively with local police, and not – disclaimer here – as legal counsel:
There is no NC state law requiring bicyclists operate single file in a single marked lane. Like any other vehicle driver, bicyclists under state law make normal use of travel marked lanes, and are required to use the right hand lane when traveling less than the maximum posted speed limit, except when passing, preparing for a left turn, or avoiding a right turn only lane when going straight. If there are no marked lanes, drivers traveling under the maximum posted speed limit are required to operate as far right as practicable (safe and practical) except when passing or preparing for a left turn. Within these limits, there is nothing under state law restricting operating side by side. Bicyclists may, at their discretion, extend the courtesy of allowing other drivers to pass within their lane when it is safe to do so, but the law does not require it. This is slightly different than the law for motorcyclists; it is always illegal in for a motor vehicle driver to pass within a motorcyclist’s lane in NC.
There are numerous conditions where riding side by side provides safety and operational advantages to bicyclists, such as making the group more visible from in front and behind, reducing the length of the group, increasing throughput at intersections, and discouraging unsafe passing by motorists within the bicyclists’ lane when the lane is too narrow for passing within the same lane (14′ is minimum advisable).
If the travel lane is too narrow for safe same lane passing, then riding two abreast does not affect lawful passing, because the driver would need to move into the next lane to pass safely anyway, and yield to traffic in the next lane regardless. It is not advisable to encourage or require bicyclists to operate in a way that would encourage unsafe same lane passing or dupe overtaking drivers into squeezing between cyclists and oncoming traffic where there isn’t enough room to pass safely. To underscore this, the state driver handbook clearly states that bicyclists are entitled to a full travel lane.
State law prohibits municipalities from passing local traffic ordinances or speed limits that are contrary to the state traffic laws:
§ 20‑169. Powers of local authorities.
Local authorities, except as expressly authorized by G.S. 20‑141 and 20‑158, shall have no power or authority to alter any speed limitations declared in this Article or to enact or enforce any rules or regulations contrary to the provisions of this Article, except that local authorities shall have power to provide by ordinances for any of the following:
(1) Regulating traffic by means of traffic or semaphores or other signaling devices on any portion ofthe highway where traffic is heavy or continuous.
(2) Prohibiting other than one‑way traffic upon certain highways.
(3) Regulating the use of the highways by processions or assemblages.
(4) Regulating the speedof vehicles on highways in public parks.
(5) Authorizing law enforcement or fire department vehicles, ambulances, and rescue squad emergency service vehicles, equipped with a siren to preempt any traffic signals upon city streets within local authority boundaries or, with the approval of the Department of Transportation, on State highways within the boundaries of local authorities. The Department of Transportation shall respond to requests for approval within 60 days of receipt of a request.
Signs shall be erected giving notices of the special limits and regulations under subdivisions (1) through(4) of this section.
Legal experts have argued over what types of local regulations are “contrary” to state law, but as an example, courts struck down a Chapel Hill ordinance that prohibited talking on a cell phone while driving. The courts viewed such traffic regulations to be within the domain of the state regulations for vehicle operation and not a valid subject for local regulations (such as parking ordinances). It is also not clear whether a group of cyclists traveling together under the normal traffic laws constitute a “procession” or “assemblage;” such terms usually apply to parades and funeral processions that require participants to violate the normal rules of the road to stay together.
Although local single-file ordinances would appear to violate state law, some cyclists advocates would suggest that the best approach to dealing with a discriminatory local ordinance would be to work constructively with the local city council to get it repealed on operational merits rather than to challenge it in court.
If you wish to engage your local police department on the subject of effective law enforcement for bicyclist safety, we suggest you check out the police training materials NCATA developed
NCATA would be happy to assist your municipality with customizing these training materials for your area.