With the final blow delivered by a House transportation sub-committee to Senate Bill 566 this morning, the 2010 legislative session has effectively ended, sending Virginia’s cyclists home empty handed. In leading a statewide effort, the Virginia Bicycling Federation tried unsuccessfully to accomplish three objectives:
- Change the existing passing distance between a car and a bike from 2 to 3 feet.
- Change the existing “following too closely” law from applying to a motor vehicle following another motor vehicle to include motor vehicles following bicycles.
- Adoption of a “careless driving” law similar to several other states that required motor vehicle operators to exercise “due care and regard” for other roadway users. Note: this provision was withdrawn before it even got started when it became clear that it didn’t stand a chance.
These changes were spurred by a desire to bring state code in line with contemporary safe separation practices. In addition, we had hoped to make some progress in addressing incidents in recent years where Virginia’s criminal justice system turned its back on us. If you think that running over a bicyclist or pedestrian is illegal in Virginia, think again. The above legislation would not have totally fixed this, but the changes would have helped.
The 3 feet overtaking provision in SB566 was passed by the state Senate in an uncontested 40-0 vote. We are grateful to our Senators and staff members for this, as well as to those who supported us in the house when HB1048 came along. Delegate Jeion Ward of Hampton provided a wonderful take on this bill as a grandmother. Additionally, we appreciate the support shown by our two most populous jurisdictions in the state for their support, Fairfax County and City of Virginia Beach.
How could things fall apart with such simple pieces of legislation? I attended most of the hearings and watched the floor debate for HB1048. Here are some of the objections raised, with my response to each:
“Bicyclists are often law breakers, unworthy of any added protection under the law.”
Don’t many drivers fit this category too? Yet they receive protection.
“Bicyclists are inconsiderate when they delay drivers from getting to their destinations, especially in narrow lanes or roads.”
Drivers delay other drivers too. To get on a major arterial near my house in a car, I am often am the only vehicle tripping the traffic signal. This stops upwards of 20-30 cars for 30 seconds or longer. Everyone waits patiently while I get on the highway, then we all travel together about a half mile or so down the road where the process repeats itself. No one honks, screams obscenities, or throws things at me. Yet bicyclists often receive harsh treatment for allegedly impeding a single motorist by far less. This same heat and intimidation was evident in each of the hearings I attended.
The public roads are just that — public, available on a first come, first served principle.
“A 3 ft. passing rule would inconvenience and hazard motorists by requiring them to move into the adjacent or oncoming travel lanes.”
As any experienced cyclist will tell you, this is already a frequent case under the existing law. The new law would have had little to no impact on the vast majority of drivers who pass us safely already. It’s the ones who don’t understand what a safe passing distance is that we are most concerned with. In addition 3 feet accounts for the typical wobble of many cyclists and children, and helps to prevent crashes where a cyclist gets startled and loses control. In short, the changes were not totally about the spandex mafia, though that’s how the legislation was portrayed by opponents.
“Bicyclists should police themselves before coming in asking for added legal protections.”
“Policing ourselves” clean before any headway can be made in bike safety legislation is an impossible standard to meet. It’s unfair too — we don’t ask drivers to police other drivers. Can you imagine AAA warning and cajoling red light runners and speeders? Yet that is what we are being asked. If people are breaking the law to the extent that it is a concern, it should be up to the police to enforce those laws.
Those were the main arguments against. If you are thinking, “Where’s the beef?” you are not alone.
In a truth is stranger than fiction move, the vote in the full House was almost entirely along party lines with Republicans lining up against and Democrats totally for. Is bicycling really a partisan issue? Things certainly didn’t start out that way. The proposed changes were initiated by a Republican and championed by others, and the bills were patroned by two Dems from N. Virginia. Yet things ended in the House along party lines. The Capital Hill rumor mill has it that the Republican Caucus considered HB1048 enough of a threat to go after it. Have Republicans become that unfriendly toward bikes and bike safety? I’m pretty much down the middle, so I’m asking this rhetorically, not sarcastically.
The treatment of this bill in the House and the rationales offered for defeating it have irked a number of Republican donors who bike. It appears there are at least a few legislators who owe the bikers that support them the benefit of a sound understanding of our concerns and a viable suggestion or two on how we can move forward on this next year.
VBF went into this thinking that our proposed changes were pretty straightforward and supportable. While we expected some difficulty, we did not expect to be roughed up for the reasons stated. But persistence pays, and we’ll be back next year. In the meantime, please get to know your legislators. More importantly, get them to know you as a skilled, responsible, and law abiding cyclist.