Virginia lawmakers gave bicyclists reason to cheer this week by passing a measure that would bring the commonwealth in line with dozens of other states and make “dooring” a traffic violation punishable by a fine.
Just in time for cycling weather, the General Assembly adopted a measure sponsored by Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax City) that would impose a $50 fine on a driver who opens a vehicle door on the side of passing traffic without checking to see that it was “reasonably safe to do so.”
The measure shifts responsibility clearly onto door-opening motorists to look out for others, particularly bikers. This is an important advance for the bicycling community, as more and more jurisdictions have eased the way for bike riders in the name of good health and a clean environment. But there should be, arguably, a change to the exception in the law that punishes opening a door carelessly on the side of traffic. More about this later.
The final measure – which passed the House 70-25 on Monday and the Senate 24-16 on Feb. 2 – was tweaked from Petersen’s original language, which would have penalized any person who opened a door into traffic. The thinking that emerged from the debate was that the onus should fall solely on the operator, not a passenger, to make sure the coast is clear, and that’s reflected in the final version. The traffic violation does not include demerits or points against a driver’s driving record. It also exempts police, fire and emergency personnel.
Petersen’s bill grows out of the painful experience of many bikers, including his own aide, Alex Parker. Parker said he was doored while pedaling around the state capital in 2012.
“I was just riding my bike around in downtown Richmond and a college-age girl popped the door open on me. When I called the cops on her, she started crying. And the cop said, ‘If anybody’s going to be charged here, it’s going to be you for hitting her car,’ ” Parker said in an interview Wednesday.
It was a painful experience, and Parker said he still has scars on his hands to prove it. It also motivated his boss to sponsor dooring legislation since 2013. (He did not, thankfully, call it “Alex’s Law.”)
The League of American Bicyclists argues not just for dooring laws, but also public safety campaigns such as New York City’s Look! Campaign to raise awareness about bike safety. The League cites data from several cities and studies suggesting that dooring crashes account for anywhere from 7 percent to nearly 20 percent of all reported bike crashes. In an analysis of biking laws nationwide, the League also says 40 states have enacted dooring laws.
Parker cited statistics from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles showing that there were 233 crashes involving people in vehicles who opened or left open a door in the path of passing traffic from 2010-15. Seventy-four people were injured, including 15 bicyclists. (There were no deaths.)
Petersen’s bill was supported by the Virginia Bicycling Federation and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, but the measure is applicable whether the passing traffic is another car, a bus, or bicycle. And, in fact, Parker said data suggest that the majority of dooring episodes are car versus car or other motorized vehicles, especially buses.
We’re waiting to hear from the governor’s office whether he plans to sign the measure.
Tripping loves bikes of all kinds and gladly supports dooring laws. But about that exception, which focuses only on the driver-side door and exempts people from opening the door on the side away from traffic? We might argue that if you nail an adult riding his or her bicycle on the sidewalk, you should get a $50 award. Double, if it’s during lunch hour on K Street. Here’s some video of a clown on a bicycle from just the other day in downtown D.C.: