‘Dooring’ bill dies in House committee

After passing the Senate last month, a bill that aimed to protect cyclists failed to pass the House Transportation Committee.

Update #3 — February 12, 2013; 4:04 PM

Today, the House Transportation Committee voted 7-7 on a bill (SB736) that would grant legal protection to cyclists struck by an open door, effectively killing the bill this legislative term. The bill had passed the Senate last month (see below).

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill, said: “I’d like to thank everyone who worked so hard to get this bill as far as it did. This is a safety issue, and 40 states, even Alaska, have this exact law. You’re more likely to hit a moose than a bicycle in Alaska, I’m troubled as to why some people don’t want this safety law in Virginia.”

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Update #2 – January 22nd; 1:09 PM

Today, the “dooring” bill (SB736) passed the Senate in a 23-17 vote. It will now head to the House for consideration.

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Update #1 – January 17th; 7:15 AM

Yesterday, a bill that penalizes drivers and passengers of vehicles (SB736) who open their doors into the paths of cyclists and other oncoming traffic passed the Senate Transportation Committee in a 8-5 vote.

“We had a number of witnesses…that testified and supported” the bill, many of them Richmond cyclists, said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill last month (see below). It will now go before the full Senate for a vote, likely sometime next week.

“I think it’s kind of a jump ball,” Petersen said of the bill’s chances in the Senate. He added that he’ll have to convince skeptical Republicans that the bill isn’t unconventional.

“This is not something new or extraordinary, it’s just a common sense public safety bill,” he said.

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Original — January 11th; 7:30 AM

State Senator Chap Petersen (D – Fairfax) has introduced a bill to curb collisions resulting from automobile passengers opening their doors into the paths of oncoming cyclists. The phenomenon is called “dooring,” and Virginia is one of few states with no law against it.

“We’re trying to condition people’s behavior in terms of getting people aware of bicyclists,” Petersen said about the bill. “It’s an awareness issue.”

It was Petersen’s political analyst who brought the issue to his attention. The analyst, who lives in Richmond, sustained injuries while riding his bicycle on W. Grace Street near the Village Cafe. He was struck by an opened door, and a police officer threatened to cite him, but relented. When Petersen heard of the incident, he was shocked. “I wasn’t aware that we didn’t have a law on the books,”1 protecting cyclists, he said.

If passed, SB 736 would require automobile drivers and passengers “to wait for a reasonable opportunity to open vehicle doors on the side adjacent to moving traffic.”2 The bill also stipulates that doors “only be left open as long as necessary.” Violators would be fined up to $100.

“It’s a simple penalty,” Petersen said, one that shifts “obligation and accountability” to those in automobiles. He underscored that those cited for dooring violations would neither lose points on their license nor be charged with a misdemeanor. He characterized the law as one “meant to resolve disputes” after an accident occurs. Moreover, he foresees the law preventing dooring incidents by encouraging passengers to be aware of their surroundings.

“That’s the kind of bill we need,” said Michael Gilbert, co-founder of Ride Richmond, which started in 2010 to “advocate and educate” local cyclists. Since he moved to Richmond in 2005, Gilbert said cycling “has exploded” across the city. He said many drivers aren’t “used to looking for cyclists,” and while he has not been doored himself, he knows several who have. He thinks the law is necessary. “I’m a driver and I’m also a cyclist…at the end of the day, it’s a positive law.”

Jakob Helmboldt, the City’s first Pedestrian, Bicycle and Trails Coordinator, said dooring is a significant hazard for cyclists. “I know a number of people that have been doored and it can lead to serious injuries by virtue of colliding with such a narrow, focused impact zone, or by resulting in the cyclists falling or swerving into traffic,” he said. “Quite simply it makes sense that in the event of a collision it would be the fault of the person opening the door, regardless of whether it is a bike or a bus that hits the open door.”

He also said it’s common practice for cyclists to pedal in the far right side of a lane, often next to parked cars, making them susceptible to dooring.3 But Helmboldt and Gilbert urge cyclists to remember that state law requires that they need only ride as far right as safely practical. This includes avoiding the space known as the “door zone.”

“Regardless of whether there is a law that gives a cyclist protection from dooring, it doesn’t do one much good if you still get doored, other than not being told you were at fault,” Helmboldt said.

While it may not end dooring outright, Senator Petersen hopes his bill will condition automobile drivers and passengers to be mindful of nearby cyclists.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee, which will likely vote on the bill later this month. Should it pass, it will go before a Senate vote, followed then by deliberation and a vote in the House of Delegates, before it would reach Governor McDonnell’s desk. Sen. Petersen said he’s “fifty-fifty right now” about the bill’s passage.

“People are going to say it’s a frivolous matter,” he said, acknowledging a recent Washington Post article that derided the bill as “quirky legislation.” He added that supporters must help him lobby the bill, otherwise it’s “not going to make it.”

Ride Richmond has organized Bicycle Action Day. On January 29th, cyclists from across the state will convene at VCU and ride to the Virginia State Capitol Building where they will rally in support of Petersen’s bill, petitioning legislators to make it law.

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  1. You can read similar bills in Oregon and California
  2. Not just to cyclists, but to all moving vehicles (scooters, cars, buses, etc.
  3. Gilbert encourages drivers to open their doors with their right hand. Doing so pivots drivers in their seats so they can see oncoming cyclists. 

Photo by: BikePortland.org

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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