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What You Need to Know About Bike Safety in North and South Carolina

If you are one of the growing number of adults in North Carolina or South Carolina who ride a bicycle for commuting, exercise or pleasure riding, you might be surprised to know that you are in one of the worst states in the country for the number of bicyclist fatalities in motor vehicle accidents.

North Carolina ranked 9th among U.S. states for “pedal cyclist” fatalities involving motor vehicles in 2013, and South Carolina ranked 11th, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Pedal cyclists, as defined by the NHTSA, are bicyclists and other cyclists, including riders of two-wheel, non-motorized vehicles, tricycles, and unicycles powered solely by pedals.

In NC, 22 pedal cyclists died in collisions with cars and other vehicles, and 15 pedal cyclists in accidents in SC died in 2013. They were among 743 cyclists nationwide who died in motor vehicle accidents, 2.3 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities.

North Carolina’s cyclist deaths were 1.7 percent of the state’s 1,289 motor vehicle fatalities in 2013, the NHTSA says. South Carolina’s represented 2 percent of the state’s 767 motor vehicle fatalities in 2013.

The average age of cyclists killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2013 was 44, the culmination of a steady age increase over the prior decade among those killed and injured, the NHTSA says. Cyclists age 55 to 59 were most likely to die in an accident, but cyclists age 20 to 24 had the highest accident injury rate.

Children younger than 15 accounted for 7 percent of all pedal cyclists killed and 11 percent of those injured in traffic crashes in 2013.

By far, the majority of cyclists killed (87 percent) or injured (83 percent) in 2013 were male.

Most Bike Accidents Occur in Urban Areas

The NHTSA says most cyclist fatalities occurred in urban areas (68 percent) as opposed to rural areas (32 percent), which differs from what the North Carolina Bicycle Crash Facts 2008 – 2012 reports.

This 2014 report by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center says a majority of bicycle crashes with motor vehicles occurred within the counties in the more urban Piedmont region (where most people in North Carolina live), while fewer occurred in the Coastal Plain and Mountain regions of the state. However, a larger share of fatal crashes (51 percent) compared to total crashes (35 percent) occurred within the Coastal Plain counties.

“Part of the explanation is in the extent of urban and rural crashes among the different regions. Rural areas tend to have higher-speed roads, few roadways with lighting, and may not have shoulders or other space to ride separately from higher-speed motorized traffic,” the report says.

Overall there were far fewer car-bicycle accidents in the mountains than in the Piedmont or Coastal Plain, which seems likely given the terrain as well as the smaller geographic territory and sparser population.

A total of 4,889 cyclist-motorist collisions were reported in North Carolina from 2008 to 2012. Of these, 111 crashes involved bicyclist fatalities. Two others involved motorist fatalities. Another 46 collisions each year (on average) resulted in bicyclists suffering “disabling type” injuries. (South Carolina doesn’t have a similar report, referring to NHTSA data instead.)

Learn to Bike Safely

One of the easiest ways to be safe while riding a bicycle is not to ride while impaired. The NHTSA says one-fifth (20 percent) of the pedal cyclists killed in 2013 had blood-alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .08 or higher (legally drunk for a driver), and almost one-fourth (24 percent) had BACs of .01 or higher.

Other bicycle safety tips recommended by NC DOT’s Division of Bicycle & Pedestrian Transportation include:


  • Wear a helmet to protect yourself from head / traumatic brain injury (TBI) in an accident. In North Carolina, children under 16 are required to wear a bicycle helmet. Studies show that about 75 percent of all cycling deaths are caused by head injuries, and many more cyclists each year suffer permanent brain damage as a result of a crash, NC DOT says.
  • Follow the rules of the road. Ride on the right with traffic, not against it. Ride a straight line far enough from the curb to discourage unsafe passing. Stop at stop signs and stoplights, and yield to cross traffic, including pedestrians. Use hand signals when turning.
  • Ride at least three feet away from cars parked alongside the road to avoid doors being opened in your path.
  • Equip your bike with lights and reflectors if you ride at night or at dawn or dusk. North Carolina law requires at least some sort of headlight and a red rear reflector or tail light.


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