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Ignorance Ain’t Bliss on the Road

Driving through Old Town every day, I worry about cyclists and pedestrians crossing King Street when I have the green light. It’s important to learn the lay of the land, and the rules related to 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 bikes 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 bikes must have a red reflector on the rear visible from 600 feet away. On roads posted with a speed limit of 35 mph or higher, the bicyclist must additionally be equipped with at least one red taillight visible from 500 feet.

Responsibilities

The first rule of thumb is the cyclist responsibilities change depending on where they are riding, 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 stoplights and stop signs (with one exception explained later). However, before I get into specifics, let’s define some essential keywords.

  • 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 wheelchair 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 stoplight 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. It comes to a complete stop at the intersection for two full 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.

That means at 3 AM when you’re driving and get stuck at the longest light in your neighborhood, and no one is coming on either side because this light is timer only (not trip sensitive) as long as you have waited two full minutes, and 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 article about Alexandria and the rise of tickets 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 with 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.

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