Supporters say it will make roads safer for bicyclists after increases in traffic injuries and deaths, while opponents argue it makes the movements of cyclists less predictable. The bill also would require drivers to change lanes when passing a bicyclist if three feet of distance isn’t possible and would allow two cyclists to stay side-by-side in a lane.
If approved, Virginia would join a handful of states that allow bicyclists to roll through stop signs.
Idaho adopted a bike yield law in the 1980s, allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs. In recent years, Colorado, Washington state and Delaware also have allowed bicyclists to yield at stop signs. D.C. considered a similar measure in 2015, but it didn’t pass.
Under the Virginia proposal, bicyclists would have discretion to proceed through a four-stop intersection without coming to a stop when no other traffic has the right of way. Many bicyclists already do this because it makes cycling easier and in some cases, they say, more safe.
Because bikes are easiest to maneuver when rolling, riders are most exposed to being struck at intersections during a full stop, said Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, one of more than 20 advocacy groups supporting the Virginia proposal.
“The quickest you can get through intersections and kind of get out of harm’s way, the better,” Billing said. The legislation, he said, “certainly doesn’t allow a person on a bike to act recklessly and to put drivers or pedestrians and people with mobility challenges in any sort of harm’s way. And that behavior would still be illegal.”
Opponents argue that allowing cyclists to abide by a separate set of rules makes their actions less predictable and riders less safe.
“This basically will cause a great deal of distress, put pedestrians at severe risk and also put motorists in jeopardy from bicyclists,” said Neil George, a resident of Old Town Alexandria, where road conflicts have risen in recent years. “Everyone needs to cooperate. We have stop signs and traffic lights so everybody is safe and secure, and we all need to adhere to the rules of the road.”
Del. Chris L. Hurst (D-Montgomery), the chief sponsor of the bill in the Virginia House — where it passed 75 to 24 this month — said the goal is to improve safety for bicyclists and to foster more of a cycling community, particularly at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a boom in bicycling.
Hurst said data from other states that implemented a version of what’s known as the “Idaho stop” law has been encouraging.
In Delaware, a recent report using Delaware State Police data found that in the 30 months after the state enacted its safety stop law, there was a 23 percent decrease in injury crashes involving bicycles at stop-sign intersections and an 11 percent decline in overall bike crashes.
“These are very common-sense measures we can take to have a very practical effect in seriously reducing the number of crashes for bicycles,” Hurst said.
The House bill is headed for a vote in the Virginia Senate as early as Monday. A similar bill failed in that chamber on Jan. 27 in a 22-to-16 vote.
Supporters say there is growing support for the bill. The cities of Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk, which have seen significant growth in bike travel in recent years and amid the pandemic, have listed the measure as a legislative priority, officials said.
Others argue the measure could increasingly put cyclists in harm’s way.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who voted against the Senate bill last month, said he has had close encounters with bicyclists ignoring traffic rules at intersections along the Virginia Capital Trail connecting Richmond and Williamsburg.
“I cannot tell you how many times I have seen bikers ignore that stop sign in alarmingly close proximity to my vehicle or other vehicles because they don’t want their heart rate to go down and don’t want to break their stride,” he said on the Senate floor.
He continued: “This is a very, very ill-advised piece of legislation. It is only going to encourage and validate the breaking of some of these Virginia motor vehicle laws that bikers are supposed to be adhering to.”
Virginia State Police Capt. Ron Maxey said at a committee hearing on the ill-fated Senate bill that the agency has multiple concerns with the proposal. Often, he said, the reason for a stop sign rather than a yield sign is a lack of visibility.
“Allowing the cyclist to enter the intersection without properly stopping has the potential for deadly consequences,” he said.
Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), a co-sponsor of the failed Senate bill who supports the similar House measure, has questioned Virginia State Police conclusions, which he said aren’t based on data.
“Having to put your foot down and start over again is harder to get across the street. It slows you down and makes you more vulnerable to getting hit,” Surovell, a cyclist for more than 25 years, said Thursday before the Senate Transportation Committee. “This policy has been adopted all across the United States, and it seems to work.”
Supporters touted other aspects of the bill as critical to improving safety for those traveling on two wheels. They want to put into law, for example, that cars should change lanes to pass safely if they can’t maintain at least three feet of separation.
“It is reasonable and practical,” Hurst said. “You would pass the cyclists just like you would pass a car. You would wait until it’s safe to do so and then change lanes.”
Advocates say it is also good safety policy to allow cyclists to ride side-by-side. It shortens the length of cycling trains, for example, so when a car does need to pass, the driver has a shorter distance. It also helps to protect children by allowing parents to ride with a child, they say, protecting a younger rider on the inside of the lane.
But critics have voiced concerns about the potential of pushing cars outside the yellow line of their lanes. Maxey said if two cyclists are riding next to one another, they could conceivably take two lanes and potentially block traffic from passing.
“Anything that would increase motorists having to make aggressive moves like that could increase the possibility of a crash, as well as possible road rage situations,” he said.
Advocates have pushed for decades to give bicyclists the legal standing to roll through stop signs. It would allow cyclists to get through a traffic stop without having to put a foot on the ground — something that already is common practice among cyclists who don’t want to lose their forward momentum. Advocates note that vehicles routinely roll through stop signs without a complete stop.
Supporters say keeping forward momentum at intersections helps cyclists to avoid possible collisions with vehicles. The constant movement, they say, also helps to reduce blind-spot incidents because bicycles in motion are more easily seen.
“It seems a little odd to say that a stop sign is not always going to be a stop sign for cyclists. But if we want to keep them safe, we want to reduce the number of crashes we have,” Hurst said. “So it is a safety issue.”