Recently, the widespread popularity of skateboarding has prompted the Town of Davidson to explore an ordinance regulating the use of skateboards. All of the interest in the rules of the road made us decide to continue our discussion of state and local traffic laws.
In 1921, North Carolina’s General Assembly created the state highway system as a result of pressure to modernize the state’s existing “haphazard system of dirt and gravel roads.” The North Carolina Department of Transportation has primary responsibility for control and management of the nearly 103,000 miles of public roads in the state highway system. The state authorizes local governments to adopt ordinances regulating the use of streets and sidewalks, as long as those rules are not inconsistent with state law. This system of overlapping authority can lead to confusion about how roads and vehicles are regulated.
The past three Common Laws columns have focused on traffic laws. We discussed texting while driving, speeding violations, and requirements that drivers share the road with cyclists. The three columns generated questions about additional traffic-related topics, including the use of golf carts and toy scooters on public roads.
What types of vehicles are allowed on North Carolina’s public roads?
North Carolina law requires vehicles to be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles before they can be operated on public roads. The term “vehicle” is defined broadly to include any device (other than a device “moved by human power”) which transports people or property on a road.
However, even though they are human-powered, bicycles are expressly designated as vehicles under North Carolina law. Under this definition, golf carts and motorized wheelchairs are vehicles, but skates, skateboards, and manual wheelchairs are not. Compliance with the registration requirement does not fully answer the question of whether or not a person can use a particular vehicle on a public road due to a number of legislative exceptions and exemptions. For example:
- Segway-type scooters may be used on sidewalks, bike paths and public roads with a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour or less, even though they are not required to be registered by their owners.
- Mopeds are exempt from registration, but they are banned from public roads.
- Most farm vehicles are exempt from registration when used on roads near a farm in connection with farming operations.
- A person operating a motorized wheelchair is deemed to be a pedestrian under North Carolina law, so they are subject to pedestrian laws rather than motor vehicle laws.
- In most instances a driver must be at least 16 years old to operate a vehicle on a public road. However, bicycles are an exception to that general rule.
What about golf carts?
State law prohibits the DMV from registering golf carts. However, that is not the end of the road for golf cart enthusiasts. State law authorizes counties to adopt ordinances permitting the use of golf carts on public streets with a posted speed limit of 35 miles an hour or less. Davidson has a golf cart ordinance that permits businesses, schools and governmental bodies to operate golf carts on public roads in certain limited circumstances. Golf carts are subject to a $25 annual registration fee and the operator must demonstrate a need to operate a golf cart on public roads. Under this ordinance an individual resident will not be able to register a golf cart for recreational road use. Davidson’s ordinance allows the town to limit the geographic area in which a registered golf cart can be used. The ordinance also establishes minimum safety equipment standards for all registered golf carts.
Cornelius does not have a golf cart ordinance, so golf carts are not allowed on town roads because they have not been expressly permitted by local ordinance.
Skateboarding is not a crime! Or is it?
It depends. No North Carolina law specifically prohibits the use of skateboards on public roads. In 2003, the General Assembly adopted laws limiting the liability of local governments for injuries to skateboarders, skaters and freestyle bikers using public property.
The laws were intended to encourage local governments to build public skate parks. The rationale for building public skate parks is the belief that if skateboarders have a safe place designed especially for them, they are less likely to use public roads or commercial property. Some have interpreted this statute as prohibiting skateboarding on public property unless it has been specifically authorized by local ordinances.
Our view is that the legislature intended to preserve the discretion of local governments to either permit or prohibit skateboarding according to the preferences of their residents. Many local governments have adopted ordinances regulating the use of skateboards. For example, Cornelius permits in-line skates, roller blades, skateboards, and scooters to be used on public roads as long as operators under the age of 16 wear a protective helmet. Mecklenburg County has a similar helmet ordinance that applies to skateboarding in all county parks. Two Mecklenburg County parks are skate parks. Because these parks contain special facilities for jumps and other advanced skateboarding activities, additional safety equipment is required.
Davidson’s traffic and vehicle regulations prohibit any person on “roller skates or riding any coaster, toy vehicle or similar device” from traveling on a public road, except in a crosswalk. This rule does not expressly refer to skateboards, and Davidson is considering adopting specific rules for skateboard use. Police Chief Jeanne Miller has invited skateboarders to participate in crafting the proposed ordinance. We strongly encourage skateboarding citizens of all ages to accept Chief Miller’s invitation.
The North Carolina State University campus skateboard ordinance is a great example of how participation by all interested parties can result in regulations that satisfy safety concerns without completely prohibiting popular recreational activities. The NCSU ordinance recognizes skating and skateboarding as legitimate means of transportation on campus. Under the ordinance “ollies” (where the rider and board leap into the air without the use of the rider’s hands) and “manuals” (where only two wheels remain in contact with the ground in an exhibition of balance) are expressly considered legal activities. “Grinding” (frictional contact between the skateboard and a ledge, planter or bench) is prohibited because it damages university property. Skateboarders are responsible for considering both pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and reckless operation of a skateboard is a violation of the ordinance.
[Davidson's Town Board will continue its discussions of new skateboarding rules at its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 8. See more in our Town Board preview.]
Are pedestrians allowed to walk (or run) in the road?
If the road has a sidewalk, North Carolina law requires pedestrians to use the sidewalk. If there is no sidewalk, pedestrians are required to walk “on the extreme left of the roadway or its shoulder facing traffic.”
Pedestrians walking in the road are required to yield the right-of-way to approaching traffic, unless they are crossing the road in a marked crosswalk. State law prohibits pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the block on streets like Main Street in Davidson where there are crossing signals at each end of the block.
Hi-ho Silver! Away!
According to North Carolina law, anyone riding an animal on a public road is subject to the laws that apply to drivers generally, except for those laws “which by their nature can have no application.” Relying on this law, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a drunk driving conviction of a man who rode his horse while under the influence. The General Assembly subsequently amended the impaired driving statute to exclude horses. Apparently the legislature believed that if you are too drunk to ride you will probably fall off the horse before you become a danger to others.
In addition to state law, local laws restrict riding animals. Charlotte prohibits horseback riding in public parks. Under Davidson’s municipal code it is unlawful to ride an animal in a “reckless manner” on any public street. Furthermore, it is unlawful “for any person to drive or cause to be driven through any street or highway any loose or unhaltered horse, mule, cow or other livestock.” If you see a flock of sheep being herded down Main Street, call the police.
Finally, Homeowners Associations are not permitted to adopt restrictions on the use of public roads.
Control of public roads is vested with the Department of Transportation. Homeowners associations have no legal authority to enact restriction on the use of public roads through by-laws or similar property restrictions.
HAVE A QUESTION?
If you have a legal question of general interest, please send us an email (email@example.com) and we might use your question in an upcoming column.
David and Lyn Batty live in Davidson and as lawyers, they also want you to read this disclaimer: We write this Common Laws column for informational purposes only. This column is not legal advice and it should not be relied on for making any decisions that may affect your rights. If you need legal advice regarding a specific situation you should consult a lawyer. No attorney-client relationship is created with any of our readers. Although we try to ensure that the information we provide is accurate, we disclaim any liability for inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date information appearing in this column.