INCLUDED in a raft of new laws passed by the General Assembly that go into effect this Thursday are two intended to increase bicycle safety in the commonwealth. The Virginia Bicycling Federation endorsed them, and we’ll take their word for it that similar laws in other states have reduced cycling fatalities.
Hopefully, they’ll do the same in Virginia. But there are some lingering concerns.
One of the new laws, the 2021 Bicyclist Safety Act, requires drivers to change lanes to pass a cyclist if the lane they’re in does not allow them to maintain a three-foot distance from the cyclist, even if that means crossing double yellow center lines.
But the reason the color yellow is used on some roads is to alert drivers that there is two-way traffic. And according to the Virginia Department of Transportation, “two-direction no-passing zone markings consisting of two normal solid yellow lines” indicate “where crossing the center line markings for passing is prohibited for traffic traveling in either direction.”
So a motorist who comes upon a cyclist traveling at a greatly reduced rate of speed has two choices: either stay behind the cyclist for who knows how long, or switch lanes and pass.
But crossing a double yellow line poses a danger in and of itself, since it is in an area that has been determined by VDOT to be a no-passing zone, usually because of an obstructed or obscured view of oncoming traffic. Every time a vehicle enters the oncoming lane, it increases the chances of a head-on collision.
If the first motorist decides not to pass the cyclist and proceeds to inch along behind, a long line of other vehicles will likely back up behind the first. It would only be a matter of time before one of the less-patient drivers decides to just peel off and pass the entire string.
But the same logic applies. Crossing a double yellow line to prevent a collision with a cyclist increases the danger of a crash in the opposing lane. And the more vehicles that have to be passed, the higher the risk.
The other new law allows cyclists to ride two abreast instead of single-file on Virginia roads. This will increase their visibility, as two cyclists riding side by side are easier to spot than just one. And parents riding with children will be able to take the outside position, providing a buffer against vehicular traffic. But again, the passing conundrum would apply.
The new law also requires the Virginia State Police to “convene a work group to review issues related to allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs.” Although this is still a proposal, if enacted into law, it would allow cyclists to ride through intersections without stopping. This would also create a potential hazard, as confused motorists would not know if approaching cyclists intended to stop or not.
Some bicycle riders opposed the new laws. According to VBF President Brantley Tyndall, “What the minority of reluctant bike riders worry about is that drivers will overreact and literally take the new laws out on them. They are afraid of road rage, because we know that we will always lose a battle with a negligent, distracted, reckless, or homicidal driver.”
It is for this very reason that cyclists should also understand that while they have an equal right to use the roads their tax dollars help pay for, courtesy and consideration are two-way streets. Although drivers should always remain diligent to protect cyclists, cyclists should also do their best to prevent traffic jams that could trigger road-rage incidents.
Maybe that means motorists will sometimes have to drive a lot more slowly than they’d like behind several bicyclists as they climb a hill. Or that cyclists will momentarily pull off the road when they notice a large backup behind them in order to let the vehicular traffic pass them by. Because when both drivers and cyclists follow the Golden Rule, everybody has a much better chance of staying alive.