By Cory Bilton
When I think January, I think bone-chilling temperatures, snow days, and gyms packed with people fulfilling New Years resolutions. But January in the Washington DC metropolitan area also means the beginning of new legislative sessions in both Virginia and Maryland. Every year, starting on the second Wednesday in January, the General Assemblies of both Maryland and Virginia convene for their respective legislative sessions. Here is a brief overview of proposed legislation affecting bicyclists and pedestrians. While these bills are not yet laws, as you will see, the topics of the proposals represent leading-edge conflicts between cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.
SB 97 – Minimum Clearance for Passing Bicyclists
Currently, Virginia Code § 46.2-839 provides that if a motorist intends to pass a bicyclist, the motorist must pass at least 2 feet to the left of the bicyclist. No cutting it too close. Although, depending on the road and the speed, two feet might seem a little close. Indeed, it must seem too close to Virginia Senator Bryce Reeves (R – District 17). His proposal in SB 97 is to increase the passing distance from 2 feet to 3 feet to the left of a cyclist. Under this proposal, if a cyclist can reach out and touch the vehicle as it passes, the vehicle is too close.
HB 277 – Pedestrians Crossing Highways
Prior to becoming a lawyer, I thought “highway” meant a multi-lane road with a high speed limit. But in Virginia, highway generally means, “every way or place open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular traffic . . . .” So this proposed bill refers to pedestrians crossing all streets, not just big, busy ones. House Bill 277 tries to clarify Virginia Code § 46.2 924, which covers a motorist’s duty to pedestrians crossing the street. The current law suffers from being a little vague about the timing and extent of a motorists’ duty to pedestrians. My reading of the proposed language is that vehicles in any lane of a multi-lane roadway would need to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. If the speed limit is less than 35 miles per hour, the vehicles must not only yield to the pedestrian in the crosswalk, the vehicles must stop and remain stopped to allow the pedestrian to cross. Unchanged is the requirement that motorists must yield to pedestrians at intersections on streets where speed limits are less than 35 mph. While there are some new defined terms and rearranging of parts, I think the proposal boils down to making it clearer that pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks across all the lanes of traffic.
HB0052 – Bicycles and Motor Scooters – Rules of the Road
This one is interesting. As many bicyclists know, when you ride your bicycle on a roadway, you have all the same rights and responsibilities as a motorist. Well, HB0052 wants to clarify that a little further: bicyclists have all the same rights and only the same duties as would a motorist. Seems like a nearly imperceptible difference in word choice, but its actually quite significant. A person (like a judge or jury), could interpret “all the rights and duties of a motorist” as referring to a minimum amount of care and responsibility. But maybe a bicyclist should be even more careful, given that he’s riding a bicycle, not driving a car. This Maryland bill hopes to nip that interpretation in the bud by clarifying that bicyclists are not held to a higher standard than that of a motorist.
HB0092 – Passing a Bicycle
Not to be outdone by its neighbor to the south, this Maryland bill seeks to increase the minimum clearance of a motorist passing a bicyclist from 3 feet to 4 feet. The extent of this proposal is literally just to change the “3” to “4” in Maryland Transportation Article § 21-1209. Four feet of passing room is enough so that the bicyclist should have no fear of it being a close-call.
HB0241 – Passing a Bicycle in a No Passing Zone
As sort of a companion bill to HB0092, this bill would make it legal to cross over the double-yellow line, when it is safe to do so, in order to pass a bicyclist. With the caveat that motorists are only attempting this maneuver when it is safe to do so, I think this is a good proposal. As a cyclist, I’m never thrilled to have a motorist riding right on my tail. Hopefully, allowing the motorist to cross into the oncoming lane, only when it is safe to do so, would lead to motorists giving cyclists plenty of room.
Currently, Maryland Transportation Article § 21-1205.1 prohibits bicyclists from riding on roads in Maryland where the speed limit exceeds 50 mph. Bicyclists can ride on the shoulder, but not on the roadway itself. The proposed change would allow a bicyclist riding on the shoulder of such a road to enter the roadway (a) to make a left turn, (b) to cross through an intersection, or (c) when the shoulder becomes a turn lane, merge lane or bypass lane. This seems like a completely common sense suggestion to me. We don’t need every 50 mph road to be an un-crossable asphalt moat.
This list is what I’m seeing among the proposals that most directly affect bicyclists and pedestrians at this time. Taken together, this list shows that state legislators are attempting to increase the level of respect given to cyclists, expand road access to cyclists, and keep cyclists from facing obligations that motorists don’t face. Whether these proposals become laws depends on whether representatives from each state’s less urban areas agree to promote respect for bicyclists. Maryland’s Assembly convenes for 90 days and Virginia’s Assembly convenes for 60 days this year. I’ll post an update on the fate of each of these proposed laws after the sessions have concluded.
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