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Virginia says no, for now, to letting bicyclists roll through stop signs

A pedestrian is reflected while walking a bicycle along a sidewalk in the Rosslyn area of Arlington, Va., in 2018. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Virginia Senate on Wednesday sidelined a proposal that would have allowed bicyclists to yield instead of halt at stop signs.

Instead, lawmakers voted to commission a police study of the rule as enacted in other states. They also voted to require drivers to change lanes when passing bicyclists if three feet of distance isn’t possible and to allow two cyclists to ride side by side in a lane.

Bicycle advocates say the measures are a step forward in making roads safer for a growing number of Virginians using bikes, particularly at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a boom in bicycling. But they also lamented the legislature’s lack of support for the stop-sign provision, which supporters argued could reduce serious crashes involving bicyclists.

“We’re talking about saving lives in Virginia,” said Brantley Tyndall, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, which pushed for the measure.

Virginia considering letting bicyclists roll through stop signs, no stop required

Between 12 and 15 cyclists die on Virginia roads each year, and more than 700 others are injured. According to the League of American Bicyclists, 40 percent of cyclist fatalities nationwide are the result of rear-end ­crashes, which are a concern at stop signs.

The Virginia proposal would have given bicyclists discretion to proceed through four-way intersections without coming to a stop when no other traffic has the right of way. Many bicyclists already do this because it maintains momentum. It also is a safety strategy, advocates said, noting that bike riders are most exposed to being struck at intersections while at a full stop.

Opponents argued that allowing cyclists to abide by a separate set of rules would make their actions less predictable and riders less safe.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who voted against the proposal, called it “absolutely ludicrous” and said changing the law to let bicyclists roll through stop signs would only “encourage and validate the breaking of some of these Virginia motor vehicle laws that bikers are supposed to be adhering to.”

The House of Delegates’ version of the stop-sign measure passed this month.

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Colorado, Washington state and Delaware 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. D.C. considered but did not pass a similar measure in 2015.

The bill approved Wednesday by the Virginia Senate, 21 to 18, would commission the Virginia State Police to form a work group “to review issues related to allowing bicycle operators to treat stop signs as yield signs” and consider laws adopted in other states as well as safety data, and then report to the legislature before the next session.

Some lawmakers said that studying the issue was a good compromise.

“Let’s come back with something that we can deal with next year,” said Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax).

Other aspects of the bill, such as requiring drivers to change lanes to pass if they cannot maintain at least three feet of separation from a cyclist, were supported by bicycle advocates.

Still, some lawmakers expressed concern about allowing cyclists to ride in a side-by-side formation, citing the potential of pushing cars over the yellow dividing line. Advocates said the practice would shorten the length of cycling trains, for example, so that when a car does need to pass, the driver has a shorter distance to travel.

It also would help to protect children by allowing parents to ride alongside them, they say, protecting younger riders who would be closer to the curb.

“The collective bicycling community in Virginia is excited by the progress made today regarding the protections for bicyclists when sharing the road with drivers of motor vehicles,” Tyndall said. “Requiring drivers to change lanes to pass and allowing riders to stay more compact by riding side by side will reduce crashes, improve traffic flow, and increase efficiency and enjoyment for all Virginians and bicycle tourists from around the world who contribute to our outdoor economy.”

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