Different vehicle types offer different advantages, and different people have different travel needs and preferences. The rules of the road define how everyone can get to their destinations safely on our shared roadways regardless of their chosen vehicle type. Although cars, motorcycles, and bicycles have different speed capabilities, their operators follow essentially the same basic rules of movement to avoid collisions. The following guide addresses some common questions and issues that arise when motorists encounter bicyclists.
Legal Status of Bicyclists
Bicyclists are Drivers of Vehicles
State law defines bicycles as vehicles and defines bicyclists as having the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles. Most of the rules of the road apply to all vehicles including non-motorized vehicles. Vehicles propelled by human or animal power have been operated on public roads for thousands of years. The basic rules of the road for all wheeled vehicles originated with horse-drawn carriages, and were extended to bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles because the same basic maneuvering principles apply. Every US state assigns bicyclists the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles.
§ 20-4.01(49) Vehicle. – …for the purposes of this Chapter bicycles shall be deemed vehicles and every rider of a bicycle upon a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this Chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle except those which by their nature can have no application.
As drivers of vehicles, bicyclists are allowed to travel on all public roadways except fully controlled access highways (freeways) such as interstates which have no driveways or at-grade intersections. Because property alongside a fully controlled access highway is accessed by local roads instead of the highway, bicyclists do not need to use fully controlled access highways to reach their destinations.
NCAC 19A.2E.0409 OPERATING NONMOTORIZED VEHICLES: It is unlawful for any person to ride any animal, or to operate a bicycle or horse drawn wagon or any nonmotorized vehicle or moped on any interstate or other fully controlled access highway.
Bicycles are not Motor Vehicles
Most of the rules of the road are written to apply to all vehicles regardless of propulsion source, e.g. "A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane." Some special laws apply only to motor vehicles due to their higher speed capability, greater danger to others, and higher property value. Motor vehicles are defined as a special class of vehicle under state law.
§ 20-4.01(23) Motor Vehicle. – Every vehicle which is self-propelled ….
Non-Motorized Vehicles Exempt from Impeding Traffic Restrictions
Bicycles and other vehicles with limited speed capabilities are allowed to operate on normal roads and are therefore not required to travel faster than their safe capability. The NC impeding traffic law completely exempts non-motorized vehicles and exempts those motor vehicles that travel at slow speed due to their design and nature.
§ 20-141. (h) No person shall operate a motor vehicle on the highway at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law; provided, this provision shall not apply to farm tractors and other motor vehicles operating at reasonable speeds for the type and nature of such vehicles.
Assured Clear Distance Ahead
Faster drivers must yield to slower and stopped traffic ahead. All vehicle operators must travel no faster than is safe and will allow them to stop within their sight distance. This legal principle is known as assured clear distance ahead.
“The Assured Clear Distance Ahead (ACDA) is the distance ahead of a vehicle or craft which can be seen to be clear of hazards by the driver, within which they should be able to bring the vehicle to a halt. It is one of the most fundamental principles governing ordinary care and the duty of care and is frequently used to determine if a driver is in proper control and is a nearly universally implicit consideration in vehicular accident liability.”
The North Carolina Driver’s Handbook provides guidance on this:
“The faster you are moving, the farther ahead you must be able to see to allow enough distance for stopping.” (p. 46)
“Never drive at a speed at which you cannot stop within the distance you can see on the road ahead” (p. 62)
Slow or stopped traffic may be present on any road at any time. Drivers must always be prepared to encounter garbage trucks, school buses, farm tractors, construction equipment, police officers, pedestrians, bicyclists and traffic congestion on most roads. Driving in a way that would endanger other road users who are stopped or traveling slowly is unlawful.
§ 20-141. Speed restrictions. (a) No person shall drive a vehicle on a highway or in a public vehicular area at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing. … (m) The fact that the speed of a vehicle is lower than the foregoing limits shall not relieve the operator of a vehicle from the duty to decrease speed as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person, vehicle or other conveyance on or entering the highway, and to avoid injury to any person or property.
§ 20-140. Reckless driving. (b) Any person who drives any vehicle upon a highway or any public vehicular area without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property shall be guilty of reckless driving.
Most drivers have no difficulty limiting their speed and seeing and slowing in time to avoid hitting vehicles traveling slowly ahead on the roadway. Impaired driving, reckless driving, distracted driving and bicycling at night without an adequate rear light or reflector are the primary contributing factors in car-bike collisions where motorists fail to slow in time to avoid rear-ending slower bicyclists.
Drive on the Right Half of the Road
In North America, all vehicle drivers, including bicyclists, drive on the right half of the road. Bicycling against traffic is several times more dangerous than bicycling on the right half of the road. A bicyclist traveling against traffic creates the danger of a head-on collision and reduces the time a motorist has to reduce speed or to stop. Bicyclists traveling against traffic at intersections also surprise motorists, who aren't conditioned to look for vehicles coming from the wrong direction. One of the most common types of car-bike collisions in urban areas involves a right-turning motorist colliding with a contra-flow bicyclist on the roadway, sidewalk or crosswalk.
Pedestrians may walk either direction on sidewalks and are required to walk on the left side of the road when there are no sidewalks. (Pedestrians walking in the roadway in darkness may not be visible to a driver. Walking facing traffic reduces pedestrian fatalities at night, whereas bicyclists are required by law to use lights and reflectors at night to ensure their visibility.) As a vehicle operator, always scan both directions for pedestrians before turning at a junction.
Stop/Yield Before Entering a More Important Road
Drivers entering or crossing a roadway must yield to the traffic that has priority (see § 20-158). Stopping improves the reliability of the yield by increasing the amount of time that the driver has to see and recognize approaching traffic while in a position of superior vantage.
Approaching bicyclists are sometimes less noticeable than other traffic. Bicyclists are narrow, and often ride close to the edge of the road, where they may be outside the driver's focus of attention down the center of the lane, or may be screened by obstructions at the road edge. Knowledgeable bicyclists will often ride farther into the roadway to increase their visibility to others.
In some communities it is legal for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks, and some communities designate paths alongside roads as bikeways. Bicyclists traveling both ways on roadside facilities often surprise motorists at driveways and intersections; many car-bike collisions occur in these places. Experienced bicyclists typically avoid riding on sidewalks in order to avoid the increased injury risk associated with sidewalk bicycling.
When yielding at stop signs and red lights, it is important to come to a complete stop and scan both ways down the sidewalk or path for approaching pedestrians and bicyclists. Understand that bicyclists may still use the roadway even if a parallel path has been designated as a bikeway.
5. Destination Positioning at Intersections
Drivers approach intersections using a lateral position that corresponds to their destination (see § 20-153). Left turning drivers approach in a position near the center of the road. Right turning drivers approach from a position near the right edge of the road. Straight traveling drivers choose a position between these extremes. Attempting to negotiate and intersection from the wrong position results in path conflicts, as shown below. This sometimes happen when motorists and bicyclists select a lateral position based on vehicle type rather than according to destination.
When motorists stop at an intersection with space between their vehicle and the road edge, some bicyclists may attempt to pass on the right and move up to the intersection. This can create a collision hazard with drivers who are about to turn right. Passing on the right is unlawful in North Carolina except when done in a separate marked lane.
One way that right-turning drivers can deter this hazard is to merge all the way to the right edge of the road when approaching the right turn. Wait for a gap in any bicycle traffic on the right, and merge safely into position for a right turn. This may be done even if there is a marked bicycle lane. Being all the way to the right, without room for right-side passing, allows the right-turning driver to focus on pedestrians and vehicles ahead without trying to scan their blind spot for overtaking bicyclists.
§ 20-153. Turning at intersections.
(a) Right Turns. - Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.
(b) Left Turns. - The driver of a vehicle intending to turn left at any intersection shall approach the intersection in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction of travel of that vehicle, and, after entering the intersection, the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection in a lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction upon the roadway being entered.
(c) Local authorities and the Department of Transportation, in their respective jurisdictions, may modify the foregoing method of turning at intersections by clearly indicating by buttons, markers, or other direction signs within an intersection the course to be followed by vehicles turning thereat, and it shall be unlawful for any driver to fail to turn in a manner as so directed.
§ 20-150.1. When passing on the right is permitted.
The driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass upon the right of another vehicle only under
the following conditions:
(1) When the vehicle overtaken is in a lane designated for left turns;
(2) Upon a street or highway with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width
which have been marked for two or more lanes of moving vehicles in each
direction and are not occupied by parked vehicles;
(3) Upon a one-way street, or upon a highway on which traffic is restricted to
one direction of movement when such street or highway is free from
obstructions and is of sufficient width and is marked for two or more lanes
of moving vehicles which are not occupied by parked vehicles;
(4) When driving in a lane designating a right turn on a red traffic signal light.
Motoring: Speed Positioning Between Intersections; Passing
Slower Traffic Use Right Thru Lane
Slower drivers operate closer to the curb; faster drivers operate closer to the center of the road and pass slower traffic on the left. Where lanes are marked, slower drivers use the rightmost lane that serves their destination. Where lanes are not marked, slower drivers operate as far right as is safe and practical. (See § 20-146(b).)
20-146. Drive on right side of highway; exceptions. (b) Upon all highways any vehicle proceeding at less than the legal maximum speed limit shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn.
A bicyclist requires an operating envelope at least four feet wide to maintain balance, and at least three feet of separation from motor traffic is recommended for safety. Most most marked travel lanes are only 10-12 feet wide, making them too narrow for a typical width motor vehicle and a bicycle to operate side by side within the same lane.
Operating beside a bicycle in the same lane safely requires at least 14 feet of usable pavement for an SUV, and at least 16 feet for a truck or bus. Few travel lanes are this wide.
[Graphics: i am traffic]
Most bicyclists find that if they ride at the right edge of typical, narrow travel lanes, many drivers attempt to squeeze past them at unsafe distance within the same lane. Drivers may misjudge conditions and not realize how narrow the available space is until it's too late, especially when they are approaching at high speed. The most common type of car-overtaking-bicyclist crash involves a driver who sees the bicyclist riding at the right edge of a narrow lane with plenty of advance notice, but attempts to squeeze by within the same lane. Knowledgeable bicyclists have discovered that in a narrow travel lane, it’s usually safer for the bicyclist to ride far enough into the lane to make it clear to motorists that they must move into the adjacent lane to pass. Bicyclists will sometimes ride two abreast in order to deter unsafe same-lane operation by a motorist.
[Graphic: Keri Caffrey, i am traffic]
Motor vehicle drivers pass bicyclists safely countless times every day. When done improperly, however, the results can be tragic. Some drivers say that they are unsure of what to do when they encounter bicyclists on the road ahead. It’s therefore important to increase public awareness of how to pass a bicyclist safely. In most cases, all that is needed is a little patience.
Safe passing requires following three simple steps:
- Slow Down.
- Look and Wait until Safe.
- Change Lanes to Pass.
Passing a bicyclist is legal only when it can be done safely, with adequate room, adequate sight distance, and no oncoming traffic. Always slow down and wait until it is safe to pass.
(a) The driver of a vehicle shall not drive to the left side of the center of a highway, in overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction, unless such left side is clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit such overtaking and passing to be made in safety.
(b) The driver of a vehicle shall not overtake and pass another vehicle proceeding in the same direction upon the crest of a grade or upon a curve in the highway where the driver's view along the highway is obstructed within a distance of 500 feet. ....
Because bicyclists usually travel much slower than the maximum posted speed limit, it requires less distance to pass a bicyclist than to pass a typical motor vehicle, and therefore requires less sight distance. For this reason, passing a bicyclist in a no-passing zone is legal in North Carolina when done safely with no oncoming traffic and adequate sight distance, passing at a distance of at least four feet or moving completely into the next lane. See § 20-150. Limitations on privilege of overtaking and passing.
Don't attempt to pass a bicyclist immediately before turning right. You may underestimate the bicyclist's speed and cut the bicyclist off or hit them during your turn. Instead, slow down and merge to the right behind the bicyclist as you approach the turn. It's better to follow for a few extra seconds than to risk a collision.
For information about best bicycling practices, see our bicyclist education pages.