Hwy 10, West of Mandan

Hwy 10, West of Mandan

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Bicyclists and Motorists – Is a Partnership Possible?

I wrote the following article for the Great Plains Examiner in May 2011 with the original title ‘Bicyclists and Motorists – A Partnership Long Overdue’.  Given the recent horrible news from Kalamazoo, Michigan, I wonder if my well-intentioned message has any relevance today, now five years later.  While I’m not privy to details of the tragedy, I doubt any of the ‘bicyclists guidelines’ below would have offered protection to those killed and injured earlier this week.


“Get a bicycle.  You will not regret it if you live.” ~Mark Twain

There are times when I’m commuting by bike through Bismarck and Mandan that I think of Mark Twain’s quote.  It encapsulates a classic ‘risk vs. reward’ decision I make every time I embark on my bike to go to work or run an errand.

Having lived on both sides of the river the last 12 years, I’ve had more close calls with motorists than I care to count.  The times I’ve been nearly hit (twice) or run off the road (three times) by a motorist left only minor scars and temporarily frazzled nerves.  I consider myself fortunate.  These experiences have made me a better bicyclist (and motorist), so I keep riding.  To me, the rewards outweigh the risks.

I’m not alone.  We have bicyclists in our community who commute year round, sometimes over 3000 miles annually, regardless of weather and road conditions.  Such efforts, which often go unnoticed, are heroic in every sense of the word.

In many respects, bicycling is a nexus of sustainable transportation.  Few transportation choices concurrently save money, improve personal and community health, reduce air pollution, and offer a sense of freedom and fun rarely achieved while driving an automobile.  These rewards are significant, and are likely to encourage others to take up bike commuting in the future.

Unfortunately, the mere thought of sharing the road with motorists in Bismarck and Mandan is enough to keep many people from commuting by bike.  National statistics justify such hesitancy.  Of the approximately 750 bicyclists killed each year in the U.S., 96% are involved in crashes with motor vehicles.

Mitigating risks associated with bicycle commuting can be achieved through improved roadways, better laws, and education.  Designing in-town roadways with bike lanes is an excellent first step to make transportation corridors more bicycle-friendly.  Current laws governing bicycle use on North Dakota roadways can best be described as fossilized, and are in severe need of updating (they were established in 1973!).  Education should emphasize rules and responsibilities of bicyclists and motorists, with the overarching goal of improving understanding between both groups of road users.

Improved roadways and better laws will take time to implement, but education can start immediately.

So, what should motorists and bicyclists be aware of to share the road safely?  First and foremost, everyone should realize bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles.  This fact may come as a surprise, but it’s true not only in North Dakota, but in all 50 states.  Other notable ‘Share the Road’ guidelines include…
  • Bicyclists: Follow the ‘Rules of the Road’ to the letter.  Ride with traffic (don’t be a ‘bike salmon’) and obey all traffic control devices, such as stop signs, lights, and lane markings.
  • Motorists: Don’t ‘buzz’ bicyclists when passing.  Provide at least 3 feet between the right side of your vehicle and a bicyclist.
  • Bicyclists: Be visible by 1) riding where drivers can see you (that means not on the sidewalk), 2) wearing brightly colored and/or reflective clothing, and 3) using a white front light and red rear light at night (which, incidentally, is North Dakota law).
  • Motorists: Learn to recognize situations that may be hazardous to bicyclists, such as potholes and debris, and give them adequate space to maneuver.
  • Bicyclists: Ride predictably and communicate effectively.  Ride in a straight line and use appropriate hand signals for turning and braking.  Make eye contact with motorists to let them know of your presence.
  • Motorists: Don’t honk your horn when approaching bicyclists.
  • Bicyclists: Anticipate conflicts in traffic by scanning the roadway, especially at intersections.  Learn braking and turning techniques to avoid crashes.
  • Motorists: Reduce speed when passing bicyclists, especially on narrow roads.  Be particularly careful around children on bikes.

Through an increased understanding of each other’s needs, coupled with a heightened awareness while biking and driving, bicyclists and motorists can transcend the misguided perception of having to fight for a limited amount of road space.  With time, both groups can become partners in transportation, with the common goal of keeping traffic flowing smoothly and safely for the benefit of all road users.

Mark A. Liebig
President, Central Dakota Cyclists


My view on this relationship is certainly less positive than it was in 2011.  Increasingly, I find myself asking if we have any significant protections against an auto-centric culture.  Overlay the trend of increasingly distracted and/or substance-addled motorists, and the outlook appears bleak.