Virginia Cyclists Beware – “Dooring” Bill Dinged

By Cory Bilton

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If you cycle in the Northern Virginia area, particularly inside the beltway, you are probably familiar with the threat of being “doored.”   In many parts of Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, you are frequently riding between moving traffic to the left and cars parked along the right side of the road.  When a car door suddenly opens right in front of you, it’s not the good kind of adrenaline rush.  Often, there is no time to brake or swerve to miss the open door.  But even assuming you have the opportunity, your choices include trying to skid to a quick stop or swerve out into traffic; neither option will necessarily save you from a trip to the emergency room.

Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen (34th District covering parts of Fairfax County) recently introduced a bill, SB736, to make it a traffic infraction to door a cyclist.  Specifically, the proposed legislation provided that motorists and passengers must wait to open their car doors until it is reasonably safe to do so.  Any violation of this statute would be a traffic infraction punishable by a fine not more than $100.  On January 22, the bill passed the Virginia Senate with a 23 to 17 vote.  On Tuesday this week, the bill was defeated in the House Committee on Transportation.

Virginia is one of a minority of states that does not prohibit dooring a cyclist.  Both Maryland and DC have a law prohibiting dooring.  Maryland Transportation Statute § 21-1209 provides that a person may not open a car door with the intent to “strike, injure, or interfere” with a cyclist.  DC Municipal Regulation 18-2214.4 states that “[n]o person shall open any door of a vehicle unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with moving traffic or pedestrians . . . .”  With SB736’s defeat, this means that cyclists’ legal protection can change over the course of a single ride (like my ride into work from the Ballston area to Dupont Circle).

Without the protection of a law prohibiting dooring, cyclists in Northern Virginia may find themselves with limited options after an injury.  Under the standard form automobile insurance policy in Virginia, the driver’s medical payments coverage will not cover the cyclist’s injuries.  Furthermore, the driver’s liability insurance will only provide coverage after the cyclist can prove the driver’s negligence.  The insurer may defend the driver by arguing that the cyclist had the “last clear chance” to avoid hitting the car door, which, if successful, absolves the driver of any liability.  If the dooring bill had been passed, it would be possible for a police officer to issue the driver a citation, which could then possibly be admitted as evidence in the civil case.

As a matter of policy, the bill would have benefited anyone living or riding in Virginia.  The proposed law would have helped define a person’s duty when opening a door into traffic, which reduces disputes and litigation.  The fine, while modest, would have encouraged people to be a more careful when getting out of a parked car.  It is hard to see how this bill would have caused cyclists to be less careful; a bike accident is painful, no matter who’s fault it is.  Furthermore, the proposed law would have reduced anxiety for cyclists reluctant to ride on city streets by offering them a little more protection.  Due to cycling’s mental and physical health benefits, it is in everyone’s interest to encourage more people to ride.

Although the dooring bill seemed to represent both good sense and good policy, it met fierce opposition.  Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell told the Washington Post that SB736 belonged in his file of “the stupidest bills.”  Kerry Dougherty, columnist at The Virginian-Pilot, ranted rhetorically, “Does any sane Virginian believe that larding this onto the already bloated state code will do one thing to prevent drivers from unsafely opening their car doors into traffic?”  She followed with, “We’re talking common sense here.”  This leads me to think that opponents of SB736 are definitely not cyclists and mistakenly believe that the law is unnecessary.  An appeal to common sense is no salve after being doored.

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