I was biking south on winding Sandbridge Road in Virginia Beach last week. The road was being prepared for a much needed repaving and the construction crews had milled about .7 mile section of the road creating a surface a Paris-Roubouix bike racer would find challenging.
The milled area was far worse on the edges where the grooves were deeper. Though there were smooth spots where car wheels had worn down portions through the travel lanes. I escaped the first section of creases by riding a multi-use lane that more or less paralleled Sandbridge Road. The multi-use lane, as many do, abruptly ended forcing me out on to the milled roadway.
I now had a choice to ride the side of the road with strewn gravel and deep milled ridges or take the far smoother, cleaner travel lane flattened surface. The road is heavily traveled and I felt I was far safer in the travel lane than navigating a treacherous, uneven surface on the edges only a few feet from passing vehicles where a slip could be fatal. With only about .2 miles until the milling ended, I opted to ride the travel lane.
It was at that moment a northbound Virginia Beach police cruiser saw me with several cars behind me, all, I might add, being quite patient.
The police seizing the moment made a U-turn with lights flashing came up behind me. I saw the patrol car and thought they wanted to pass me in pursuit of a speeder or a real criminal but to my surprise they were after me!
I moved off the road on to the grass. At this point, I was passed the milled surface, and had already moved to the right. The cars behind me had gone on, so as i pulled over the only car i was impeding was the police car who chose to ride directly behind my bicycle. Both car doors swung open and out popped two officers.
Officer#1, who did 99% of the talking, “Do you know why I stopped you?”
Me, puzzled, “No.”
Officer#1 “You were blocking traffic. You must bike on the right side of the road.”
And, obviously not block traffic. The reality is I was blocking traffic for less than a minute (Traveling at 15 mph over .2 miles would take 48 seconds).
I wondered if everybody else who blocked traffic for 48 seconds was being pulled over— somebody backing out of a driveway? Any motor vehicle being driven significantly under the speed limit on a winding road?
I was told that I probably didn’t know Virginia law, but it requires all bikers to ride to the far right of the road. I thought, “I don’t think you know Virginia bicycling law.” But I kept my mouth shut and remained smilingly polite. I didn’t believe this was going any place beyond a firm fatherly lecture.
Officer#1 proceeded to tell me the road is bad and if I blocked traffic an irate motorist might make my life miserable. He intimated I find another route. There are no other routes into Sandbridge.
He patriotically noted this was America and I could ultimately do what I wanted but if I blocked traffic again I would be issued a citation.
I told him I was staying in Sandbridge and had to travel this road. I thought , “It would be nice if during the repaving they added shoulders to make this inhospitable road a bit safer for biking or walking.”
Officer#2 suggested I stick to riding the roads in Sandbridge (about a 15 mile loop); ignorant of how far I wanted to bike or if my bike trip was to get a prescription or to see my ailing mother.
Both officers were polite and professional through the whole road stop and then when I started to cycle away they protected my back for a time before they turned off. I thought I’d get an escort all the way into Sandbridge. I made it the rest of the way (2-3 miles) on my own without any more police stops or overtly irate drivers.
Giving the police the benefit of the doubt that they were worried about my well-being and not having some fun before their shift ended they still did not know Virginia bike law. Unfortunately, they are not unusual as many officers who know lots of other laws do not have a firm grasp of bicycle laws. Their ignorance could have caused me to be injured or worse if i would have had to follow their orders.
Bicyclists operating a bicycle on a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place under conditions then existing shall ride as close as safely practicable to the right curb or edge of roadway. Exceptions to this are when bicyclists are overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction, preparing for a left turn, avoiding unsafe conditions…
Granted I’m not a lawyer or a policeman but the law in my reading and checking with more knowledgeable people seems clear: In deciding how far right to go, safety is the main issue. The VA Beach police never asked why I was where I was.
The use of “practicable” in bicycle law does not mean possible, but rather as far as is safe. As such, bikers’ safety comes up multiple times (note the summary law quote above). Thus, the question is really who decides how far right a biker could go and be safe?
State laws vary, but one fact remains important—bikers have the right to the road, and with that comes the right to make decisions about their safety. So who decides how close to the edge is safe? The bicycle riders do, after all it is their well being. Although their decision needs to be reasonable. Avoiding deeply cut grooves, an uneven surface and large gravel pieces seems to be reasonable to avoid . I would have hoped my safety is worth 48 seconds of someone’s time.
As for the police, giving them all the benefits of doubt as to why the stop was made, their ignorance might well have jeopardized my life. Perhaps the Virginia Beach Police Department needs an in-service on bicycle law.