WASHINGTON — Changes to rules of the road meant to protect people walking or biking down the street were narrowly approved by the Virginia State Senate this week.
One bill would block drivers from using a bike lane to go around a car that is stopped or turning left while also removing mopeds from bike lanes.
“The bill makes clear that you’re not allowed to pass somebody on the right using a bicycle lane — that’s one of the most dangerous maneuvers a car can do to put a bicycle in jeopardy,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, of Fairfax, said. “Most drivers don’t look to their right when they’re looking to execute a right turn; they don’t think about the bike coming up on the right. It’s very dangerous behavior. It’s a huge problem in Northern Virginia in terms of cars using the bike lanes to pass cars on the right, and it simply makes it clear that’s a traffic offense.”
Republican Sen. Bill Carrico, of southwest Virginia, opposed the bill, arguing that the new rules could confuse drivers.
“Their habits have been that they do this, and I think this is just going to create a confusion for the drivers out on the highways today that have practiced this for many many years,” Carrico said.
A separate Surovell bill also narrowly approved by the Senate this week would create a specific traffic violation for distracted or careless drivers who strike a “vulnerable road user” in a crash that causes serious bodily injury. A number of other states now have similar laws protecting people legally walking, biking, skateboarding, rollerblading, using a wheelchair, riding a foot-scooter, riding a horse or an animal-drawn vehicle.
“The reason this is necessary is because vulnerable users are at significant disadvantage to other drivers,” Surovell said. “Number one, when a pedestrian or cyclist comes into contact with a car, they’re frequently concussed, they’re knocked out. They don’t remember what happened, if they’re even alive.”
Surovell said if the bill becomes law, it could set a standard that could help victims win civil suits against drivers for damages too.
“Right now, if a driver basically stands up in court and says ‘I didn’t see him’, it’s pretty much an absolute defense,” Surovell said.
GOP Sen. Ryan McDougle said existing laws should be enough, since drivers can be charged with reckless driving in the most serious cases.
“The court is making the determination of whether the action is culpable and criminal or less culpable and not criminal. When we create this, now there’s a specific statute, so if somebody is struck … and there is serious injury, that person is not going to go to jail,” McDougle said.
“Reckless driving doesn’t work often in cycling cases,” Surovell responded, because there is not enough evidence.
The penalties in Surovell’s bill would only apply to drivers who are careless or distracted
The House of Delegates is dealing with several bills that would change what counts as distracted driving when it comes to the use of cellphones and other digital devices behind the wheel.
A bill approved 80-18 in the House would provide a new exception for using screens that are factory-installed in a car.
Another bill that was advanced Wednesday by a subcommittee would expand Virginia’s existing ban on texting or emailing while driving to include tapping icons rather than just entering text and to clearly include the time a car is stopped in traffic or at a light
The bill would maintain an exception for the use of navigation apps.