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Two years after fatal bicyclist crash on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill reflects on bike safety

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Bikes and scooters sit in the racks outside of Dey Hall on October 12, 2022.

Two years ago, on Jan. 25, 2022, Nicholas Watson was struck when a driver of a parked vehicle opened their car door. 

Watson was biking on West Franklin Street when the accident occurred. He was thrown from his bike, and after sustaining severe injuriesdied about two weeks later. 

The accident increased the community's focus and attention on bike safety, especially on Franklin Street, John Rees, the president of the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill, said.

Rees said the Town enacted an anti-dooring ordinance as a consequence of Watson's accident. The ordinance, which was enacted by the town council in May 2022, established penalties for drivers who leave car doors open for too long or open their door without looking. Those who violate the ordinance can be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail or a $500 fine.

In October 2021, the Chapel Hill Town Council adopted the Vision Zero Resolution — a global strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2031.

According to the Town's Vision Zero Dashboard, there were 37 reported pedestrian and bicyclist-involved crashes, two serious injuries and one death in 2022. Since 2007, the Town reported 13 fatal bicycle crashes. The dashboard has not been updated with data from 2023. 

“We have prioritized the entire built environment for cars for generations,” Rees said. “You can't turn that all around in one day.”

Bergen Watterson, the mobility and greenways manager for the Town, said the goal is to have safe infrastructure throughout the Town, but that funding creates a challenge.

“When funding is available, we hire consultants to do designs and we look to hire the best ones that use nationally accepted best practices for safe facilities but that are also context-sensitive to the specific needs of Chapel Hill,” Watterson said. 

According to Watterson, the West Franklin Street curb-running bike lane project and the Estes Drive Connectivity Project are intended to increase bicyclist and pedestrian safety in Chapel Hill.

Town council member Theodore Nollert said in an email that increasing the number of protected bike lanes is top priority for him.

“We simply have to put physical barriers between cars and cyclists,” he said. “We also need really safe crossing infrastructure.”

Watterson also said the Town has implemented the Safe Routes to School program that creates educational opportunities and safe infrastructure to encourage children to walk and bike to school in Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro. 

“Some people choose to ride bikes or to walk, for some people that's their only option and just because you're not traveling inside a car doesn't mean that you should be subject to unsafe conditions,” she said.

Tamara Sanders, a manager at Back Alley Bikes, said she supports helmet usage past the age of 16 and movement toward lower speed limits. She also said checking in with local bike shops is a great way to find more information about bike safety.    

Stefanee Richardson, the program director of nonprofit Triangle Bikeworks, said bicycling is a means for transportation — though some people may not view it that way.

She said cycling is an economical way of getting around and that it contributes to sustainability and should be safe for everyone.

“I think a lot of the Triangle has made great efforts in creating the bike lanes in certain areas, but there's always room for improvement, obviously, when you have cyclists that we're still hearing about in these accidents,” Richardson said.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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