Virginia House panel again shoots down bill to protect cyclists from ‘dooring’

February 25, 2014

A cyclist in Northwest Washington rides through rush-hour traffic during Bike to Work Week, secure in the knowledge that no car doors may be legally swung open into his path. No such security exists in Virginia. (Gerald Martineau for The Washington Post)

It is illegal in 40 states and the District of Columbia to open the door of your parked car into the path of a bicyclist. But in Virginia it remains perfectly fine, after the state House of Delegates again shot down a bill to prohibit “dooring” on Monday morning.

For the second year in a row, Fairfax City state Sen. Chap Petersen (D) championed the bill for a couple of reasons. One, to protect cyclists from suddenly slamming face first into the steel and glass of a car door. Two, to allow local police to assess some fault (and a $50 fine) so that insurance companies could not reject medical claims filed by injured cyclists on the basis that “no one was found at fault.”

Last year, the dooring bill passed the Senate but died in a tie vote in the House Transportation Committee. This is an issue of great interest in Northern Virginia, where more folks are riding bikes to work or using Capital Bikeshare to get around and having to coexist with our infamous traffic.

This year, the bill was passed by the Senate last month, with an amendment lowering the proposed fine from $100 to $50. But in the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee #2, after hearing testimony favoring the dooring bill from bike groups and insurance agents, the delegates voted 4-3 against recommending the bill to the full committee.  The only Northern Virginia delegate on Subcommittee #2, Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), voted for the bill as did delegates Jeion Ward (D-Hampton) and Betsy Carr (D-Richmond). Subcommittee chairman Del. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg) voted no along with delegates Scott Taylor (R-Virginia Beach), Ronald Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach) and Terry Austin (R-Buchanan).

Here is the entirety of the proposed law:  “No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side adjacent to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so. A violation of this section shall constitute a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $50. No demerit points shall be awarded by the Commissioner for a violation of this section. The provisions of this section shall not apply to any law-enforcement officer, school guard, firefighter, or member of a rescue squad engaged in the performance of his duties.”

Del. Scott Garrett chairs the subcommittee which rejected a bill making "dooring" of cyclists illegal. (Virginia General Assembly) Del. Scott Garrett chairs the subcommittee which rejected a bill making “dooring” of cyclists illegal. (Virginia General Assembly)

Garrett said he had “concerns about the visibility of an approaching vehicle,” because “’moving traffic’ can include multiple modes, like mopeds, motorcycles, trucks, cars, and bicycles.” He said he also had a problem with the bill not specifying whether there is intent to harm someone. “I raised this point in committee,” Garrett said. “Under this legislation, the simple act of exiting the vehicle, even with due caution, could result in a traffic infraction, punishable by a fine up to $50.”

Petersen said Garrett’s concerns about the type of approaching vehicle were “irrelevant. The bottom line is if you open up the door into oncoming traffic, you do so at your own risk, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a bicycle or car or an elephant.” He said the issue of intent was also moot because of the phrase “reasonably safe to do so” in the law. “If you’re in the car, open the door and someone comes out of nowhere at 80 miles per hour, you have a defense to that. But this isn’t about a traffic infraction. This is solely about liability claims and insurance claims.”

Petersen said he found the bill’s defeat “bewildering” because no one testified against it, and even a state police official testified that there was a gap in the law because no one could be held at fault after a cyclist-door accident. LeMunyon said he voted for the bill for that reason, that “it’s helpful to create a perception in the code of who’s at fault. I thought that would streamline things and make more sense.” He also felt that “people who live in Fairfax County understand what Chap’s talking about more than if you live in a rural, agricultural small town area.”

Cycling advocates were baffled, again. “I don’t know where they get the idea that cyclists like to ride into doors,” said Michael Gilbert, co-founder and former head of Ride Richmond. “I think the delegates just want to put more fault toward the cyclists and they don’t understand how cyclists work in the road.” Gilbert noted that cyclists are instructed that they have all the rights and responsibilities of car drivers on the road, but that opponents such as Del. Scott Taylor expect that they also should be able to see inside parked cars, determine if someone is inside and if they are about to fling the door open. He said the whole idea of drivers or passengers checking for car or bike traffic before opening doors should be included in driver’s education curricula, “but we have to get the law on the books first.”

Tom Bowden, vice president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, watched the 7 a.m. subcommittee hearing. He said Garrett has “never voted for a bike safety thing in his life” and that Taylor “just couldn’t get his head around the obvious, and somehow it’s the cyclists’ responsibility to avoid the doors.” (Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.) Bowden said the legislators seemed to feel that all cyclists were obnoxious lycra-clad Tour de France wannabes. “Some of us are just getting to work,” he said. “It’s just ridiculous.”

In a later development, the same subcommittee approved a bill that would require drivers passing a cyclist on the road to allow three feet of space, rather than the current two feet. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Fredericksburg), was recommended to the full committee by a 5-2 vote.

So to recap: Cars and bikes moving on the road at the same time, everyone be cool. Cars parked and bikes moving on the road, cyclists are fair game.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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