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Lawmakers change gears on recently passed bike law

two people cylcing
Two cyclists ride. (Photo: Phil Riggan/VPM News)

Last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 2622, which required drivers to change lanes when overtaking a bicycle if the lane is not wide enough for them to pass by at least three feet. That bill also removed limitations on riding bicycles two abreast.

Now, less than a year later, Senate Bill 362 seeks to amend the law by having cyclists move into a single-file formation “as quickly as is practicable when being overtaken from the rear by a faster-moving car.” It cleared the state Senate late last month.

The bill’s revision began with a tragic accident that a constituent told Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George) about. Stuart’s district includes parts of Prince William County, where the incident allegedly took place last August. The story prompted Stuart to introduce the updated bill.

At a transportation subcommittee meeting on Jan. 20, Stuart told fellow lawmakers that a constituent contacted him about an early morning trip in the western part of the county. While the constituent was driving his truck with a six-horse trailer attached – with one horse inside – the driver came upon two cyclists riding side by side while rounding a corner. Stuart said the driver told him he was going 50 miles per hour, while the cyclists were going five.

“And so he had an option to kill them or put the truck off the road, which ended up causing the horse to break its leg which ended up having to force them to put the horse down,” Stuart said. “So a pretty serious issue for this constituent. You know, I don't know if you say this or not, thank goodness, it was only the horse and not those two riders. But these are the concerns that some of us had with this.”

VPM asked the Prince William County Police Department to verify the accident.

“We checked multiple areas and no one recalls this. Not sure we can help further unless they can be a bit more specific with the date, time and street,” said 1st Sgt. Jonathan Perok with the Public Information Office in an email. “Just so you know, I inquired with our Animal Control Bureau, watch commanders, crash unit and the district commanders who have overseen that area. None of them were familiar with this incident.”

VPM also reached out to Stuart’s office on multiple occasions to speak with the senator as well as try to get a copy of the email Stuart said the constituent sent, but his office did not respond to our request. VPM also filed a public records request with the General Assembly’s Division of Legislative Services to obtain a file copy of the legislative draft Stuart used to write the bill, but also did not get a response to that.

In seeking to update the law, Stuart said that he’s trying to strike a compromise with the bill - one that still allows cyclists to ride two abreast but tells them to go single file when a faster, bigger vehicle comes up from behind.

“I hope that that is a fair way to strike this,” Stuart said. “But certain roads, we don't have bike lanes in rural Virginia. And if folks believe they have this ability to do this, they're going to get killed. And fortunately, nobody got killed here. But the horse had to be put down as a result of the guy saving two people's lives.”

But bike advocates say statistics show that being allowed to ride two abreast is safer.

“This was a part of a three-part bill that was modeled after legislation in Delaware that showed when various elements were added together, [they] reduced bicycling injuries at intersections by 23% and bicycle injuries overall by 11% over a five-year study period,” said Brantley Tyndall, president of Virginia Bicycling Federation. “So we haven't seen even one year of that in Virginia yet.”

Speaking at the subcommittee meeting, Tyndall told lawmakers that cyclists are much more visible when riding in a group. And he says the practice helps control unnecessary passing from drivers, especially when coming around a corner.

“In that case, [it] is the driver's responsibility. They are in control [of] their vehicle,” Tyndall said. “And if you're carrying a load, you're carrying weight, you should probably drive slower than the maximum speed limit because remember, the speed limit is a maximum limit.”

An amendment was added by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Prince William). The amendment states in part that any failure by cyclists to move into a single-file formation would not necessarily constitute any negligence on the part of the rider in a civil action.

“One of the larger concerns I had was that whenever we legislate something in the traffic code, we were also setting the standard of care for liability in civil cases,” Surovell said. “And my concern was that if a cyclist was injured as a result of riding two abreast, that in every single case, the motorist would claim that the cyclists had not moved back to single file within a reasonable period of time, and therefore it was contributory negligence.”

Surovell is an avid biker and once rode across the U.S. He said he’s been hit by cars three times and understands the physics involved when coming up against a “10,000 pound vehicle.” He said that many drivers are already biased against cyclists.

“I understand that a lot of people driving their cars get frustrated when there's two bikes in front of them,” Surovell said. “But part of the reason we made it okay to ride two abreast is because it's safer because cars are a lot more likely to see a cyclist if they're riding two abreast than if they're riding single file.”

Surovell said he believes cyclists should retain the right to ride two abreast at all times, but he conceded that the new bill will likely pass. so wanted to make sure his amendment was made.

“By passing this, I think we're making the roads a little bit less safe than they already are,” Surovell said. “And I had hoped we would leave something like this in the books for a little bit longer so people could adjust rather than reacting six months after the law went into effect because somebody had a horse that got killed.”

The bill passed the Senate with only 4 ‘no’ votes - Surovell voted ‘yes’ - and now weaves its way to the House.