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Bicycling safety bill passes Virginia House, rolls on to Senate

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Stephen Ambruzs, the owner of Downshift Bikes and Brews in Roanoke, said in late summer his business had seen a lot more people come in and buy bikes during the pandemic.

RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates passed the Bicycle Safety Act, which advocates say could make Virginia among the safest states in the country for bicyclists.

The bill from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, has three main components: drivers are required to fully change lanes to pass bicyclists; cyclists can ride two abreast in a lane; and bicyclists can treat stop signs as yield signs.

About a dozen people die while riding a bike in traffic each year in Virginia, while another 700 or more are injured, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. More bicyclists have been in the streets since the pandemic, during which time bicycle sales about soared.

“What we want to do is address the safety implications that have been going on before the pandemic and into the future,” Hurst said.

The legislation is modeled on legislation passed in Delaware in 2017. Delaware State Police conducted a study before and after the law went into effect, and found that cyclist injuries at intersections dropped 23%.

Allowing bicyclists to ride side-by-side will shorten the distance it takes for a driver to pass them. The more controversial part of the bill is the “safety stop” at stop signs. Research shows that when bicyclists take the lead at intersections, slowing down and yielding to anyone already in the intersection, there is less confusion about right of way and reduces collisions.

The House passed the bill on a bipartisan vote of 75-24. Hurst will have to present his bill to the Senate, where he’ll face road bumps. Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, sponsored a duplicate bill, but it failed on the Senate floor on a vote of 16-22.

Police footage bill cut off

Del. Sam Rasoul’s bill to require law enforcement to release video footage within 15 days from when they shoot or seriously injure people with other weapons failed to advance from a House panel. The bill provided law enforcement exemptions, such as if doing so would jeopardize the investigation, to withhold the footage longer.

Rasoul, D-Roanoke, was motivated to sponsor the bill in response to Roanoke County police shooting and killing 18-year-old Kionte Spencer in 2016. The family hasn’t seen the unedited video, and the community has been asking to see the footage. Chief Howard Hall has rejected requests to release it.

“This is a good bill that allows for a certain amount of transparency and accountability the public is looking for right now,” Rasoul said.

A Democrat-controlled House Appropriations subcommittee heard the bill, but it lacked enough support to get a vote.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are inconsistent in how they handle releasing body camera footage when officers use force on someone. Sometimes they release them in days or weeks in response to public pressure, sometimes after the case is closed or never.

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Hurst has a bill moving through the House that would require law enforcement to open up its investigative files after a case is no longer ongoing, providing another avenue for this footage to be eventually made public.

Governor’s powers

House and Senate Democrats defeated a batch of proposals from Republicans aimed at reining in the governor’s emergency powers.

Currently, a governor’s executive order issued under an emergency declaration can last until June 30 following the next regular session of the General Assembly, which starts in January.

Republicans filed several bills that would have orders expire after a certain amount of time unless the legislature authorized them to continue.

“We’ve had unprecedented times and unprecedented occasions, but the past several months have showed the emergency services of disaster law needs amended and needs some restriction on gubernatorial action,” said Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, who sponsored one proposal.

Gov. Ralph Northam has filed more than 30 executive orders since the start of the pandemic.

“It denies the executive the agility to respond to ever-changing emergency situations and to put in place measures that will save lives,” said Rita Davis, counsel to Northam.

At a Senate committee meeting to debate the issue, Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said he was uneasy about trying to change the governor’s powers in the middle of a state of emergency. He suggested the legislature set up a subcommittee to examine the topic when the pandemic is over.

Stillbirth tax credit

When Monique Baroudi’s son was stillborn 19 years ago, she and her husband were going to claim him as a dependent on their taxes. They had no birth certificate, no death certificate. They were hoping to get some financial relief to cover funeral expenses and other costs.

“It was as if the government didn’t consider Matthew existed at all,” Baroudi, of Fairfax County, told a House panel.

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, filed legislation to offer a $2,000 refundable tax credit for the mother or couple in the year the stillbirth happened. He said the Department of Taxation reports there are 550 stillborns each year in Virginia.

A House Finance subcommittee declined to move the bill forward.

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