Rights of Pedestrians and Bike Riders in Virginia | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Check the news from pretty much any region of Virginia on nearly any day and you will find a report on a serious crash that left a pedestrian badly injured, a bicyclist hospitalized or, worst of all, the victim who was outside the motor vehicle dead. The details of the collisions always differ, but the root cause rarely changes.Creative Commons (CC-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons / formulanone -- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedestrians_and_Cyclists_Sign_-_A1A_Winter_Beach_(43137882431).jpg

Drivers hit, hurt and kill pedestrians and bike riders because people behind the wheels of cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles fail to follow the applicable rules for yielding right of way. Virginia devotes several sections of its state law code to dictating where, when and how pedestrians and bike riders can legally share the road with motor vehicles. Some of these rules are straightforward and widely understood. Others are quite specific and only apply in certain circumstances.



Regardless, each rule regarding the right of way for pedestrians and bicyclists has been put in place to prevent injuries and save lives. When a driver negligently or recklessly violates the right of way for a pedestrian or bike rider, strong grounds exist for filing a personal injury claim or a wrongful death lawsuit.

Pedestrians Are Not Confined to Sidewalks and Shoulders

No one can honestly argue they do not know that pedestrians have the right to use crosswalks, sidewalks and foot paths. Yet, “pedestrian struck by car in crosswalk” is one of the cases my Virginia Beach-based personal injury law firm colleagues and I handle most frequently. Some drivers have been speeding, while others allowed themselves to become distracted. In more than one instance, the at-fault driver was under the influence of alcohol.

Here is what the Virginia Code says about drivers’ general duty to yield or stop for pedestrians:

The driver of any vehicle on a highway shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian crossing such highway by stopping and remaining stopped until such pedestrian has passed the lane in which the vehicle is stopped:

1.       At any clearly marked crosswalk, whether at midblock or at the end of any block;

2.       At any regular pedestrian crossing included in the prolongation of the lateral boundary lines of the adjacent sidewalk at the end of a block; or

3.       At any intersection when the driver is approaching on a highway where the speed limit is not more than 35 miles per hour.

This statute also gives drivers legally enforceable duties to yield to pedestrians while entering or exiting driveways, parking lots and alleys. Staying off sidewalks and exercising caution in school zones, parking lots and residential neighborhoods should be no-brainers for drivers.

Another section of the state code even makes it legal for pedestrians to walk in the roadway when no other safe option presents itself. Here is the legal language with the most relevant language in bold:

Pedestrians shall not use the roadways for travel, except when necessary to do so because of the absence of sidewalks which are reasonably suitable and passable for their use. If they walk on the hard surface, or the main travelled portion of the roadway, they shall keep to the extreme left side or edge thereof, or where the shoulders of the highway are of sufficient width to permit, they may walk on either shoulder thereof.

The practical translation for pedestrian who must walk in the roadway is that they should face oncoming traffic.

A final set of protections for pedestrians exists in section 46.2-926 of the Virginia Code, which was updated to take effect on April 1, 2021. The revised statute instructs police to make no stops and issue no citations solely for jaywalking or for stepping out from between parked vehicles. It also permits pedestrians to enter the roadway at any point to board a bus and to cross a street between corners as long as the crossing is made in a straight line.

Bikes Are Treated as Vehicles for Most Legal Purposes

Bicycle injury and wrongful death claims in Virginia are very similar to motorcycle claims. This is true because bike riders have nearly all the same legal rights and duties as motorcyclists under state law. The biggest difference is that bicyclists must stay off interstates and stay out of the flow of traffic on rural highways with posted speed limits of greater than 35 mph.

Other than those statewide restrictions, and certain rules enforced by cities and counties, bike riders in Virginia can operate on any local road or state highway as long as they

  • Keep to the right or stay in designated bike lanes,
  • Obey traffic signals,
  • Use lights and wear reflective clothing at night, and
  • Yield to pedestrians in all the situations when drivers must yield.

Virginia lawmakers also made it a point to prevent bike injuries by enacting laws that

  • Require helmets for all riders younger than 14,
  • Require drivers to leave sufficient space between themselves and bikes while passing, and
  • Ask drivers to reach with their right hand across their body to open doors after parking.

The last law is intended to reduce the problem of “dooring.” Many bicyclists suffer brain juries and broken bones each year after a driver unexpectedly opens a car or truck door in their path and knocks them off their bikes. Reaching across their bodies forces drivers to check their blind spots for approaching cyclists.

The bike helmet law applies to older teens and adults, as well, but it contains an important qualification. Specifically, section 46.2-906.1 of the Virginia Code explains that failing to wear a helmet “shall not constitute negligence, or assumption of risk, be considered in mitigation of damages of whatever nature, be admissible in evidence, or be the subject of comment by counsel in any action for the recovery of damages arising out of the operation of any bicycle.”

This means that neither drivers who hit and hurt bike riders, nor the at-fault drivers’ insurance companies, can automatically deny the payment of bicycle injury claims by arguing contributory negligence. Most personal injury and wrongful death cases in Virginia are subject to a pure contributory negligence rule that makes it impossible for people who do something to cause an accident to hold anyone else liable. This not true for bike riders who don’t wear helmets.