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Proposed Bill Would Create New Bicycle Safety Laws In Virginia

Family biking
A family rides on bicycles. (Photo: Brett Sayles)

Virginia lawmakers are considering a bill that would require drivers to give cyclists more room in the roadways.

Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) and Del. Chris Hurst (D-Blacksburg) are proposing the Bicycle Safety Act. The act has three main components: It allows for cyclists to ride side-by-side in one lane, permits them to treat stop signs as yield signs and mandates drivers change lanes when overtaking. That’s a change from Virginia’s current law, which requires drivers to give three feet of clearance when passing. 

Speaking at a committee meeting this week where the bill was approved 11-4, Morrissey said the changes to how drivers overtake cyclists are meant to promote safety and allow for types of riding that already occur.

“Many families that are biking together, often the parent rides on the outside closer to the travel lane and feel it gives the child more protection by doing that,” Morrissey said.

The proposed Bicycle Safety Act comes at a time when more people are buying bicycles for transportation and exercise during the pandemic. Vehicle traffic, meanwhile, saw a big dip during the early months of the pandemic, but quickly rebounded.

The new safety measures are supported by cycling advocates like the Virginia Bicycling Federation. Brantley Tyndall, president of the Federation, said with drivers and cyclists increasingly sharing the roadway, it’s important for traffic safety laws to protect cyclists of all backgrounds and skill levels.

“I think we should be building our infrastructure and designing our laws for people who aren’t experts,” Tyndall said. “They’re regular people who take a few trips a week, or they get out on a trip on the weekend, but their safety is of utmost importance, and they need a little bit of extra room and a little bit of extra options.”

Tyndall said the goal of the proposed Bicycle Safety Act is ultimately to save lives. 

In 2019, there were 651 accidents involving a bicycle in Virginia, according to the state Highway Safety Office. Of those 651 accidents, 128 bicycle riders were seriously injured and 13 were killed.

While allowing bicyclists to yield at stop signs sounds more dangerous, data from multiple states shows it actually reduces crashes. 

The proposal is modeled on similar legislation Delaware signed into law in 2017. Data from the Delaware State Police showed that after the Bicycle Friendly Delaware Act went into effect, accidents at stop-signed controlled intersections went down 23%. Another study from Idaho found that similar rules around stop signs passed 1982 led to a 14.5% drop in injuries the following year. To date, there have been no studies showing this kind of law to be unsafe. 

Tyndall said an added bonus is that more bicyclists won’t have to lose momentum as they enter an intersection.

“If you have to come to a complete stop, as opposed to coming to a 2-3 MPH slow period, it could add 2-5 seconds to you clearing a typical intersection, maybe up to 10 [seconds] if it’s a big one,” he said. “The conditions in that intersection could change a lot.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Virginia State Police are opposing the bill. They say they still have safety concerns about allowing bike riders to yield at stop signs.