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Study: Changing Signs—Not Laws—Could Make Roads Safer For Bike Commuters

North Carolina's "Share the Road" signs and "sharrows" on the pavement are confusing to many motorists.

That's according  North Carolina State University researchers George Hess and Nils Petersen. Their study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, reports that language is ambiguous and does not reflect state law.

Hess, a professor and bike commuter, was lead-author of the study. He said a sign reading "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" is more accurate and make more sense to motorists. The Federal Highway Administration approved such signs in 2009.

In North Carolina, bicycles are considered vehicles just like cars.


Credit George Hess and Nils Peterson / NCSU

"The words 'Bicycles may use full lane' is a direct statement of what the traffic laws say. 'Share the road' is more of a suggestion, and it's up to individuals to interpret what that means," Hess said. "Some individuals think it means bikes should get out of the way. Some individuals think it means bikes can be in the roadway."

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports about two cyclists are killed on the roadway in the U.S. every day.

Before this NCSU study, Delaware switched out these road signs. The city of Wilmington, N.C. did the same on a few stretches of roadway.

Don Bennett is Wilmington's Traffic Engineering Manager. He said several motorists called to ask whether Wilmington had changed the rules of the road. Bennet says the new sign was an opportunity to educate people.

"I think it more clearly conveys the law. When you do have a cyclist that is taking the lane because they don't feel comfortable riding in a place where vehicles can easily pass them, it just reinforces that that cyclist has the right to do so."

There is not formal data on the outcome of replacing the signs, but Bennett and the N.C. State researchers hope such a change would reduce the number of cyclist injuries and fatalities on the road.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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