RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Among several new laws taking effect in Virginia on July 1 are two pieces of legislation impacting bicyclists and the drivers with whom they share the road.
Starting Thursday, drivers can be fined and receive a citation for a moving violation if they don’t change lanes when passing a bicyclist unless the lane is exceptionally wide. The new legislation also removed restrictions on bicyclists riding two abreast. In other words, two bicyclists will be allowed to continue riding side by side, even if a vehicle is trying to pass.
“They were supported by the General Assembly because of their potential to really save lives, prevent crashes and also just create an environment that is more comfortable and inviting for all ages and abilities,” Virginia Bicycling Federation President Brantley Tyndall said. “They’re both related to, basically, passing a bicyclist and what a bicyclist can do in that environment.”
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed the Bicyclist Safety Act on March 31, encompassing both measures.
“The requirement to change lanes to pass adds some standardization and also builds into the same practice for a passing a bicyclist or bicyclists as you would if you were passing a first responder on the side of the road in the Move Over Law,” Tyndall said. “It actually streamlines a lot of our passing maneuvers in our law and makes it easier to understand what’s expected of all people.”
Tyndall said that in other states across the country where such legislation has been implemented, there has been a reduction in crashes involving bicyclists.
According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), from 2010 to 2014, there were 3,679 crashes involving bicyclists, for an average of nearly 736 such incidents in the commonwealth each year.
Two years prior to that data collection, Nate Ayers was in a near-fatal crash while riding his bike in Madison County.
“On October 19, 2008, I was on a training ride,” he said. “I have no memory of the accident at all.”
Ayers said that he was unconscious and not breathing, eventually waking up in a ditch on the side of the road, surrounded by strangers.
“I was in the ICU for five days and six nights, and I had three broken vertebrae, several broken ribs, a traumatic brain injury, nerve damage in my left leg and hip, and it took me five months to come back to work in a light duty capacity, just wearing khakis and a shirt and tie,” he said.
Ayers has worked with the Henrico County Police Department for more than 15 years. About a year after the accident, he said he was back in uniform.
“I always have low back pain every day,” he said. “It’s always there, probably never going to go away. It’s been 12 and a half years, almost 13 years this October.”
Now 44, Ayers has spent more of his life on a bike than off of it. Although he is acutely aware of the safety concerns, he said he’s not going to let irresponsible behavior stop him from doing something that he enjoys.
“It took me four years to ride a bike again,” Ayers said. “Every time I go for a ride, in the back of my mind, I think, ‘Is this the last thing I’m going to do?’ and I’ve got three kids, three little girls, 11, 8, and 4, and it makes me worried that they might not have a dad if somebody hits me again.”
That’s why Ayers said he does whatever he can to make sure he is visible to drivers, sharing tips that other bicyclists can follow for a safer experience on the roadways.
“I always use lights, day and night,” he said. “I wear bright-colored clothing all the time.”
Ayers said that he also tries to ride with other people, when possible, but avoids groups that are too large because they can impede the flow of traffic.
“Obey all the traffic laws,” he said. “As a police officer, I’ve seen a lot of people ride at night in black clothing with no lights, riding on the wrong side of the road because they think it’s safer because they can see what’s coming toward them. But then, you’re adding your speed to the vehicle’s speed.”
Ayers also suggested that riders wear a helmet, regardless of age and experience.
“The doctors at UVA told me if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “That helmet was destroyed.”
For drivers sharing the road with bicyclists, Ayers said that patience is key.
“It may seem like a long time to get around this group of cyclists or a single cyclist,” he said. “But in the grand scheme of things, you’re only talking about 30 second of your life versus someone else’s life, and if you’re hurried and in a rush and you try and squeeze past them and you strike them, it’s going to be disastrous for the cyclist.”
When compared with other states across the country, Tyndall said that Virginia does not have bicyclist fatality rates that are drastically worse. However, he also noted that each life lost and each person injured is a person and a tragedy.
“All traffic fatalities are preventable,” Tyndall said. “I think there’s a bunch of latent demand with a lot of people that would ride a lot more if they felt like it was safer, and hearing from the bike community across the commonwealth, unsafe passing is the thing that most people feel is the most threatening and it’s the most traumatic, can absolutely lead to being hit by a driver, and if those could be prevented, bike riding goes up a lot.”
Bicycling safety advocates in Virginia are also looking ahead to a piece of legislation in the Bicyclist Safety Act that was not passed. The measure allows bicyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign.
“It might seem counterintuitive that you sort of let a bike rider just roll through a stop sign,” Tyndall said. “Where that’s been implemented, you’ve seen a reduction in crashes, and in part, it’s because you don’t have to start from zero, which means that you can clear an intersection a lot faster.”
Overall, Tyndall said, the goal is to save lives.
“We really can enact policies and change our built environment,” he said, “so that everyone can be safe and we can reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.”