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Ignorance Ain’t Bliss on the Road

When I was a freshman in college I was not allowed a car on campus. So one cold night in December, during finals, a whole bunch of us wanted McDonalds, which was about 3 miles off campus down Richmond Road, the main road in Williamsburg. As none of us had cars, I volunteered to bike down and get all of the food. In hindsight this was a horrible idea, but to 8 hungry freshmen holed up in a study room at 11:30 at night, I was Katniss Everdeen in the flesh. However, biking down was treacherous—it was frigid, I was on the wrong side of the road, I was running stop signs (what, I’m a bike not a motorist!) and when I finally got to Mickey D’s, only the drive thru was open. I tried to walk through and order food, but I was told I had to be on a vehicle. I learned then the true definition of vehicle, if you sit and it moves—you can order from the McDonald’s drive through. And that’s all I cared about at the time. Now that I am driving in Old Town every day, worrying about cyclists and pedestrians crossing King Street when I have the green light I took it upon myself to learn the lay of the land of the rules of cyclists.

 

Equipment

First off, in Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William, Manassas, in fact, in every county and city in Northern Virginia, cyclists are REQUIRED to wear a helmet. Furthermore, just like a car, cyclists cannot put more people on their bike than it can hold. So all those cute romantic comedies with girls riding on the handlebars? That’s an infraction that can cost you a fine of at least $100. The only exception is if a child is attached to the back of a bicycle in a child seat. Cyclists also must always have one hand on their handlebars, meaning they cannot be holding anything to prevent that. Bicycles must have a white headlamp visible from 500 feet if being ridden between sunset and sunrise. All bicycles must have a red reflector on the rear visible from 600 feet away. On roads posted with speed limit of 35 mph or greater, the bicyclist must additionally be equipped with at least one red taillight visible from 500 feet.

 

Responsibilities

The first rule of thumb is the responsibilities of a cyclist change depending on where it is being ridden, whether that be a sidewalk or the roadway, the rights and duties differ. If you’re riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, you have the same privileges and obligations as a pedestrian would, if you choose to ride on the road, your responsibilities are the same as a vehicle. This means, if you’re riding on the road you must stop at stop lights and stop signs (with one exception explained later). However, before I get into specifics let’s define some important key words.

  • Bicycle: a device propelled solely by human power, upon which a person may ride either on or astride a regular seat attached thereto, having two or more wheels in tandem, including children’s bicycles except a toy vehicle intended for use by young children. A bicycle is a vehicle when operated on the highway.
  • Shared Use Path: a path that is physically separated from motorized vehicular traffic by an open space or barrier and is located either within the highway right-of-way or within a separate right-of way. Shared use paths may also be used by pedestrians, skaters, users of wheel chair conveyances, joggers, and other non-motorized users. (Think GW Parkway and the lovely Tidewater trail.)
  • Roadway: the portion of the highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the shoulder.
  • Vehicle: every device used for the transportation of people or property on a highway.

 

Now, as a cyclist is riding a type of vehicle they must signal if they are to change lanes and they MUST obey all traffic signs, signals, lights, and markings. There is one exception for all vehicles (cars included), which is a solid red stop light at an intersection. A driver or rider may proceed through the intersection on a steady red light only if the driver or rider complies with all five provisions listed below:

  1. Comes to a full and complete stop at the intersection for two complete cycles of the traffic light or for two minutes, whichever is shorter.
  2. Exercises due care as provided by law.
  3. Otherwise treats the traffic control device as a stop sign.
  4. Determines that it is safe to proceed.
  5. Yields the right of way to the driver of any vehicle approaching on such other highway from either direction.

Yes folks. That means at 3 AM when you’re driving and get stuck at the longest light in your neighborhood and absolutely no one is coming on either side because this light is timer only (not trip sensitive) as long as you have waited 2 full minutes, and absolutely no one is coming on either side, you may proceed. I wouldn’t try this in D.C. as this is a Virginia law (Reference: §§46.2-830, 46.2-833). But to all cyclists out there, you too must follow red lights and stop signs. This has become a huge problem in towns and cities, and in September The Washington Post wrote an articleabout Alexandria and the rise of tickets being written to cyclists for running stop signs.

One last note, bicyclists may make left turns as either motorists or pedestrians do if on the roadway. To make a pedestrian left turn, the bicyclist should continue straight across the intersecting road, obey the traffic signals, turn left at the corner, and proceed as usual. Bicyclists have the option of either riding or dismounting and walking in the crosswalks of the two intersecting roads.

 

Tips for Safe Bicycling

  • Be responsible- obey all traffic control devices and use proper hand signals.
  • Always ride with the flow of traffic.
  • Dress safely – wear a helmet, wear bright colored clothing, and secure loose pant legs.
  • Ride defensively – anticipate the actions of other road users and watch for road hazards.
  • Pass vehicles with extreme care – turning vehicles may not see you.
  • Be aware of motor vehicle blind spots whether while riding or when stopped at an intersection.
  • Maximize your visibility at night – wear reflective clothing and apply reflective tape to your bicycle.
  • Walk your bicycle when you get into traffic situations beyond your cycling abilities.
  • Register or license your bicycle if required or provided by your community.

 

While bicycling is a great way to stay fit and help the environment there are rules associated to cycling that often get ignored or go amiss. Protect yourself and others, and ALWAYS call the police if you are involved in a collision, whether that be with a car, another bike, or a pedestrian. And remember, when in a pinch, a bike can get you through Mickey D’s and closer to that large fries or Egg McMuffin.

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Tom Curcio, the driving force behind Curcio Law, is a dedicated trial lawyer with more than 35 years of experience in Northern Virginia. He has dedicated his career to representing people who have been seriously injured through no fault of their own. He works tirelessly to obtain the compensation his clients are legally entitled to…

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