Whether You're Biking or Driving, the Twin States Have Their Own Rules of the Road
It started with a post on the Upper Valley email listserv:
“At least twice a week I have a near collision with an oncoming motorist who is swerving wide while passing a bicyclist or hiker,” the author wrote. “I love the fact that this is such a bicycle and pedestrian friendly community but it is neither legal or safe to cross the double yellow line in order to give a wide berth to a cyclist or a pedestrian. Double yellow lines are there for a reason.”
It continued with other grievances related to bicyclist and motorist interactions, and prompted a series of responses and new questions. How much space must passing motorists give cyclists? Are bicyclists required to ride single-file? And what about the double yellow line — was the original poster correct?
Not to mention, of course: How do these answers vary on either side of the Connecticut River?
Such questions aren’t simply something to prep in driver’s education class. The summer — especially the weekends — is chock-full of cyclists along the roads of the Upper Valley, often riding in groups and touring the countryside.
Another poster took it upon himself to look up some Twin State statutes, available online. I reached out to a few bike and safety officials to see if they could help translate them into plain English.
Let’s start with the Granite State.
Motorists passing bicyclists: New Hampshire law lays it out clearly: Motorists must provide a 3-foot passing distance between the vehicle and the bicyclist at speeds up to 30 mph, and 1 additional foot for each 10 mph faster (4 feet at 40 mph, 5 feet at 50 mph, and so on).
Single file? Not necessarily, said Larry Keniston, an intermodal facilities engineer with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program.
Two-abreast cycling — in other words, two cyclists riding in the same direction side-by-side — is allowed on state highways unless it’s impeding the normal flow of traffic.
Keniston said he knew of a few Seacoast-area communities who expanded that rule so that bicyclists could ride two-abreast whether or not they’re impeding traffic, but that’s not the case in the Upper Valley.
The double yellow line: I talked to Keniston early on a recent afternoon, and by the end of the day, he wasn’t able to find statute that definitively answers whether motorists may cross the double yellow line to allow safe passing distance of bicyclists.
But, Keniston said, it comes down to arithmetic: If a typical road is 22 feet wide from pavement edge to pavement edge, that means 11 feet per lane. A car can easily take up 8 feet or more of that space, and bicyclists operate at about 4 feet across. Even without providing the mandated passing space, cars and bicyclists are often already wider than the lane itself.
“Finding proof of the law is a little more challenging,” he wrote in an email later in the day. “Some state statutes, like Colorado’s, have it clearly written as a ‘yes’ for bicycles. My interpretation (for New Hampshire) is yes. ... No reasonable argument could be made otherwise since drivers must cross the double yellow line for many other reasons including providing moving around parked cars, providing pedestrians additional margin, avoiding road hazards, etc.”
Final thoughts: Keniston posted a video animation on an NHDOT web page showing why bicyclists riding in the middle of the road can actually be more beneficial than hugging the far-right. View it at this link: http://bit.ly/9PxRSR
If you’re driving a car, Keniston said, patience comes easier if you picture a bicyclist not as an annoying roadblock, but instead as somebody who is decreasing car traffic around you and leaving an extra parking space for you at your destination.
He even recommends playing a little game of pretend: “Just imagine if ... the person on the bicycle is your loved one. The three-foot rule makes a lot of sense.”
So, that’s that for New Hampshire. But what about its neighbor to the west?
Motorists passing bicyclists: Whereas New Hampshire law is very specific on this matter, Vermont lawmakers left their version of the law “specifically vague on purpose,” said Jon Kaplan, the bicycle and pedestrian program manager with Vermont’s Agency of Transportation.
“When it was being debated, law enforcement didn’t feel like a specific distance would be enforceable,” he said.
Instead, the law says that motorists must “exercise due care, which includes increasing clearance.”
The Department of Motor Vehicles’ driver manual recommends a passing distance of 4 feet, Kaplan said. He said he generally wouldn’t advise a specific distance for all locations and situations; drivers should simply make sure to give bicyclists plenty of room, he said.
Single file? Vermont and New Hampshire mirror each other here: Cyclists may ride two-abreast unless they’re impeding the normal flow of traffic.
But Kaplan also offered some additional food for thought.
His agency and others “encourage riders to ride single file,” he said, “especially when they know there’s a car coming behind them. Which just kind of makes good sense, and it’s courteous.
“That is probably the number one complaint that I hear about bicyclists — whether or not it’s super prevalent, that is the number one thing.”
The double yellow line: Once again, this is tricky to cite. But like Keniston in New Hampshire, Kaplan said that crossing the double yellow line — when it’s clearly safe to do so — is unavoidable when bikes and cars are sharing the road.
Vermont’s law currently on the books says that vehicles cannot cross the double yellow line specifically when there are designated markings, such as “no passing zone” signs, which suggests that drivers can cross the double yellow line in other instances. Kaplan said a bill to clarify that law was introduced last year but failed to advance.
Final thoughts: “If I had to sort of sum it up, both motorists and bicyclists have responsibilities out there, and need to be aware of each other,” Kaplan said. While he agreed with Keniston that there are times when riding in the center of the road is beneficial, he said bicyclists should generally stay as far to the right as possible to allow for easy motorist passing.
He recommends bicyclists get a mirror to attach to their handlebar so they can see cars approaching from behind, estimating low-end models go for a little as $10.
“That really helps a lot, because I’m always watching for cars coming up behind me, because then I’ll get over to the right as far as I can,” he said.
And motorists, he said, should “understand that they are the ones that are in a 2000-lb steel encased vehicle, so try to put themselves in the bicyclists shoes a little bit.”
For me, it comes down to patience. When I’m driving, it may be OK — and even necessary — to cross that double yellow line to get around a bicyclist, but I’d do well to remember there’s no rush in doing so. A few seconds waiting behind a bicyclist so we can navigate a blind curve is well worth my safety, the bicyclist’s safety, and the safety of any drivers who are potentially driving toward us on the other side.
Are you a bicyclist? Motorist? Both? What advice do you give your fellow travelers on the road? If you could tell them anything, what would it be? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.