It will continue to be acceptable in Virginia, legally if not morally, to open your car door into the path of a bicyclist. After an anti-”dooring” bill by Fairfax Sen. Chap Petersen (D) passed the Virginia Senate, and then a House transportation subcommittee, the House transportation committee voted 7-7 Tuesday on the question of reporting it to the full House. And a tie is as good as a loss in the Virginia General Assembly, so Virginia will remain one of only 10 states in America that do not prohibit “dooring.”
Cycling has become an increasingly popular way of getting around Northern Virginia, and providing for rider safety on our congested roads would not seem to be controversial. Cyclists also sought the law so that insurance companies could not reject their medical claims by saying that no fault had been assessed by police after a bike-vs.-car-door accident.
But seven members of the transportation committee didn’t show up for the vote, including four from Northern Virginia: Tom Rust (R-Herndon), Tim Hugo (R-Centreville), Barbara Comstock (R-McLean) and Rich Anderson (R-Woodbridge). Just one vote from any of those would have sent the bill toward passage.
The problem for all four of them was that they had other committee meetings scheduled at the same time as the transportation committee.
Rust and Comstock said in e-mails that they and Hugo were in a Commerce and Labor Committee meeting at the same time, where Rust was presenting a “major health care bill.” Rust said “no one notified me the bill was up in order to leave Commerce and Labor to vote.”
Anderson said he was scheduled to present two of his own bills to Senate committees at the same time and that took priority.
“Had I been there, I would have voted for Sen. Petersen’s bill,” Anderson said in an e-mail, noting that he’d voted for it in subcommittee. “I felt bad for Chap because his bill got caught in the whirlpool that the General Assembly becomes in the last two weeks.”
Among the delegates from Northern Virginia who did show up, Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg), Bob Brink (D-Arlington) and Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Springfield) all voted yes. Joe May (R-Leesburg) voted no.
All this whirling and absenteeeism and bad scheduling was ultimately bewildering to the bike groups that had lobbied for the bill. Michael Gilbert of Ride Richmond said, “It’s very frustrating to say the least." He said Alabama (Alabama!) passed a stronger version of the dooring law ... in 1980. He also noted that companies seeking young workers want “a bikeable, walkable city” for those employees.
Mark Blacknell, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and an Arlington resident, watched the whole thing unfold with dismay. He said some of the no-shows walked in moments after the tie vote was taken. He said Del. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg) worried that his 10-year-old daughter could be ticketed for improperly opening her door, a fully specious concern.
Why else did people oppose the bill? “Spite,” Blacknell theorized. He noted that Del. John Cox (R-Ashland) runs a trucking company. “He makes his money off the public roads, he just doesn’t want to share them,” Blacknell said. “It’s just maddening.”
Petersen, who had guided the bill through the Senate and part of the house, said, “This is a safety issue, and 40 states, even Alaska, have this exact law. [Alaska!] You’re more likely to hit a moose than a bicycle in Alaska, I’m troubled as to why some people don’t want this safety law in Virginia.”