Earlier this month, Garret Thompson was hit by a black car while riding his bike at the intersection of Gorman and Jackson streets in Raleigh, near the N.C. State University campus. The driver didn't stop, leaving Thompson, 23, with a broken leg, a sprained ankle and other bruises and scrapes. Until he heals, he can't work or leave his home.
"I'm a competitive cyclist, everyday commuter, and known figure in the cycling community," Thompson says. "Raleigh has a strong family of cyclists, yet it's somehow still one of the most dangerous places to ride."
From July 2013 to July 2014, there were 98 vehicle crashes involving bicycles within Raleigh city limits, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Traffic Engineering Accident Analysis System. Raleigh averages eight bicycle-vehicle crashes per month.
A year ago, a city bus hit 37-year-old cyclist Antwaun Stewart, killing him. Police ruled the crash an accident and did not charge the bus driver. In May 2013, a prominent Raleigh developer, Christopher Mangum, was killed while riding his bike on Lassiter Mill Road when a driver failed to yield while making a left turn.
There is a tight-knit bicycling community, Thompson says, anchored by community organizations like Oaks and Spokes and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, and stores such as the Oak City Cycling Project and the All-Star Bike Shop. There are also marked bike lanes and shared roads and an extensive greenway network.
And the city is taking steps to improve infrastructure for bicyclists, which could make streets safer. Raleigh's Public Works department is designing improvements to heavily trafficked Hillsborough Street, adding a striped bike lane from campus to the Capitol Building downtown. Bike routes will be marked with green paint. A $1.1 million grant from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program will fund construction of at least 27 miles of marked, on-road bicycle lanes.
Raleigh will also update its comprehensive bicycle plan next year, says Mike Dayton, chair of the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission.
Dayton is reluctant to cast cycling in the Triangle as inherently dangerous, especially if cyclists are careful and ride properly. The recent cluster of cycling-related deaths in Durham and Orange counties—three since early October—is unusual, he says.
A longtime competitive cyclist, Dayton says his dream is to see the Triangle become "a cycling mecca on par with Portland or Seattle," and that the best way to make cycling safer is to get more people riding. "There's safety in numbers because cars are used to seeing more cyclists on the road and they come to expect them when that happens," Dayton says. "The best thing we can all do is to encourage other people to ride."
The League of American Bicyclists says cyclists are safest when they act like cars, by taking up more of the driving lane, stopping at stop signs and traffic lights and signaling when turning.
"A big part is claiming the road and the lane when it is unsafe to have other cars coming by you," Dayton says.
David Zell, one of the co-owners of the Oak City Cycling Project, says the state needs to initiate safety programs to encourage, rather than discourage, cycling on state-maintained roads. In Florida, for example, all new state roads built have to include bike lanes.
But Thompson says distracted, aggressive—even hostile—drivers pose dangers to cyclists obeying the rules of the road.
"I always assumed I was a safe enough rider, that the chances of an accident were slim to none," Thompson says. "You can't get a group of cyclists together without swapping stories of motorists endangering our lives or disrespecting our rights."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bikers beware (still)"