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Bill tackles passing space around bicycles

The Richmond Times-Dispatch: Bill tackles passing space around bicycles


By KATHERINE CALOS
Published: February 14, 2011

The cyclists were slow and a bit wobbly as their group started up from a stop on Nelson's Bridge Road near the Hanover County Courthouse on Sunday.

In a second, a red SUV flew around a 45 mph curve, veered around the group with barely a pause and came so close that a cyclist at the front had to jerk his wheel to the right. Those behind him caught their breath.

No one fell. No harm was done. But the encounter illustrates a mindset that legislators are pondering again this week.

Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, has sponsored a bill to increase the minimum passing distance from 2 feet to 3 feet for cars going around bicycles. The bill passed the Senate 40-0 and is expected to come up Wednesday in a House of Delegates transportation subcommittee that has already tabled a House version of the bill.

Del. John A. Cox, R-Hanover, was one of the subcommittee opponents.

"I hate to disagree with Senator McDougle, but I am a cyclist, and I think it's adequate," Cox said of the 2-foot standard. He said if a cyclist is riding a foot or two from the edge of a narrow rural road, and there's "2-foot grace on the side of that, you're already well over into the oncoming lane of traffic if the car is going to pass."

"There are some people who want to outlaw bicyclists on rural roads. I had a lady call me and tell me she wouldn't vote for me if I didn't vote to outlaw them completely. There's no such bill.

"We need to find a middle ground."

In Hanover County, the popularity of rural roads among bicycle riders has led to friction at times among residents.

Two long-distance bicycle routes pass through Hanover, one from Maine to Florida and the other from Virginia to Oregon. The Richmond Area Bicycling Association sponsors regular Saturday and Wednesday rides to Ashland. Hanover Courthouse is the starting point for regular Thursday rides and a variety of special rides, such as the RABA Valentine's Day Ride on Sunday.

Other riders have mapped out personal routes through the county's back roads. Other counties in the Richmond region also have popular routes to ride.

Some residents fume when recreational riders get in the way while they're rushing to complete weekend errands. Cyclists get unnerved by cars that pass by close enough to touch, and many riders know someone who has been injured in an automotive encounter.

Leslie Newman, one of Sunday's riders, said a car hit him in 2005 and shattered his left knee.

"I think they think as long as they don't hit us, it's fine," he said.

Cyclists statewide are supporting the legislation to increase the minimum passing distance to 3 feet, following the lead of 18 states and the criteria of the League of American Bicyclists.

McDougle, the Senate bill's patron, was riding in the Northern Neck last summer when he had a close encounter.

"I was on a two-lane rural road and had somebody pass extremely close, so close that I had to move over, almost off the pavement," he said.

"After that experience, a number of bicycling organizations came to me sometime later in the summer. I had a pretty good understanding of why they were trying to do it."

Support for cycling isn't hard to find.

Five localities in the region — Richmond, Ashland and the counties of Hanover, New Kent and Charles City — have passed ordinances supporting bicycle transportation, and Chesterfield County will consider a resolution Feb. 23.

A bicycle-friendly report from the Richmond mayor's Pedestrian, Bicycling and Trails Planning Commission is expected to be considered by the Richmond City Council on Feb. 28.

When it comes to specifics, personal experiences often play a big role.

Del. G. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, told a story at a January transportation subcommittee meeting about being at a stoplight with his wife on a Sunday morning when a group of cyclists approached.

"This 'Tour de Newport News' comes flying by our car to all race to the front of the line just like a pack of bees on honey; they go all around the cars and through the cars to get there," he said in a videotape of the subcommittee meeting that considered the House bill. "She punches me in the shoulder and says, 'When they obey the law, then you give them more laws.'"

Champe Burnley, co-chairman of Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones' commission, said cyclists need to respect laws such as the prohibition on riding between lanes of traffic, but a few scofflaws don't negate the need for a wider margin of safety.

"What about this sixth-grader who wants to ride to school or the person who wants to ride to work?" he said. "We're talking about saving lives here.

"The bottom line is, when cars and bicycles have accidents, you're almost guaranteed that the bicyclists come out on the losing end. It's 150 pounds for a cyclist versus 3,000 pounds for a car or 80,000 pounds for a truck."

Ed Hutcheson, who lives off Ashcake Road, gets irritated by cyclists, but he agrees about the risk.

"They travel a little bit too much in packs," he said. "They're very inconsiderate about letting anybody get by."

State law says that cyclists can ride two abreast but must move into a single file when a car approaches. Unless the cyclist has a small rearview mirror, however, the cyclist may not know that a car is behind until it's very close. And then it may take a few seconds for the cyclists to move over.

Impatient motorists may not be willing to wait.

"I'm sure there are some people (cyclists) who are doing it right and some people who are doing it wrong," Hutcheson said. "I'm sure there are some cars that are doing it wrong. Nothing is one person's fault. The key is who's going to get hurt, and it's the cyclist."