Earlier this week the Virginia state Senate passed a bill that protects bicyclists and other drivers from ramming into the open door of a parked car. The bill prevents people from opening car doors on the traffic side of the street "unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so," under penalty of $100 fine. In other words, the legislature thinks that if you swing a car door into traffic and cause an accident, you should be accountable.
Logical enough, right? Not everyone thinks so. William Howell, House Speaker for the state legislature, told the Washington Post in December that this type of law belongs in a file he calls "the stupidest bills." Columnist Kerry Dougherty of The Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk-based paper, went a step further and labeled the dooring bill an "asinine measure" (via the Post's Northern Virginia blog):
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?
If dooring laws are insane, there are a whole lot of crazy states out there. Inspired by the new bill, Richard Masoner at the Cyclelicious blog surveyed the country and found that 40 states, along with the District, have a law on record that's more or less verbatim to the language being proposed in Virginia. Masoner also mapped the geography of dooring laws:
Image via Flickr user Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious under a creative commons license.
The Post's Tom Jackman says it's hard to see why any states oppose such laws. Without legislation on record, dooring victims can be denied medical coverage by their insurance provider, and charging drivers with any wrongdoing becomes incredibly difficult. On the flipside, the doored riders themselves can actually be assigned blame by a traffic cop — leaving them potentially on the hook for damages.
Chap Petersen, the Virginia Senator sponsoring the bill, explains this backwards situation:
As bike lanes become more prevalent in our urban areas, “dooring” has become a major threat to cyclists. It’s a threat because there is no way to prevent accidents and serious injuries. …
Right now, the driver is not at fault. They are permitted to open the car door at their discretion. There is no law to find them negligent of causing the injury.
Petersen was reportedly inspired to propose the Virginia bill by a political aide who was doored a little while back. According to the blog Blue Virginia, the aide suffered arm and shoulder injuries and a broken finger, only to discover he had no legal recourse (aside from suing the driver in small claims court) and no hope for medical compensation. He brought the law, or lack thereof, to Petersen's attention while he was still recovering.
Virginia's new bill is a start toward protecting riders, but some recent dooring-related fatalities in New York have exposed the limitations of such legislation. Far from "bloating" state codes, dooring laws often don't bloat it enough.