By law, bicyclists have the same rights on the roads as motorists, but that doesn’t mean all motorists honor the law, or that all cyclists follow it. So inevitably, bicycle accidents happen, even though cities like Seattle, considered one of the best American cities for biking, have created protected bike lanes and trails and support better biking infrastructure.
Seattle personal injury attorney Stacie Bain, aka the “bike lawyer,” has focused her legal practice, Rainier Bike Law, on seeking justice for injured cyclists. She herself has been a bike commuter, bike messenger, bike racer, family cyclist, and utility cyclist for over 25 years. “I started representing injured bikers 11 years ago because it was the best way to fuse my passion for riding with my desire to work with ‘bike people,’” says Bain. These qualifications make Bain the ideal resource on legal matters that every cyclist should know. But it’s also Bain’s personal experience as a bicycle accident victim that truly rounds out her expert status.
Here are Bain’s top-five legal tips for cyclists:
1. Sue when the car driver was at fault
Negligent motorists will often deny responsibility for an accident, or even flee the scene. And their insurance companies will frequently fight any payout. Don’t let their actions deter you from pursuing a personal injury suit.
“In 2008, I had the unfortunate experience to learn firsthand what it feels like to be injured by a negligent driver,” says Bain, who was bike commuting home from work one dark evening when she was rear-ended by a driver on a busy arterial. “The driver hit me so hard I went over the top of the car, still clipped into my bike pedals. The driver fled the scene, leaving me bleeding on the pavement.” Bain’s injuries were serious and her recovery was prolonged, but the legal process of resolving her own case was even rougher.
Bain’s insurance company initially denied coverage, so she pursued litigation in federal court and, after much hard work, finally received full value for her case. “Although the experience was life-changing, I now have the advantage of seeing each case through the lens of a bike lawyer and as the victim of a negligent driver. This makes me understand and appreciate my clients’ struggles even more,” says Bain.
2. Sue even if you were partially at fault
“There is no threshold of fault that would prevent a cyclist from bringing suit,” says Bain. In Washington, a comparative negligence state, a cyclist’s recovery will be reduced by any percentage of fault allocated to the cyclist. “Even if the cyclist is partially at fault, he or she can still recover from the at-fault driver.
3. Don’t be cowed by the blame-game
“There are many ways drivers blame cyclists for collisions,” says Bain. The most common defenses include allegations that the cyclist:
- Failed to keep a proper lookout
- Was riding too fast for the conditions
- Was following too closely
- Failed to comply with a statute (such as riding without lights or riding the wrong way on a bike lane)
- Was guilty of basic inattention
“A quick consultation with me can help shed light on whether it makes financial sense to pursue a claim or not,” says Bain.
4. Know that being ticketed does not stop you from suing
“Usually if a cyclist receives a citation at the scene from a biased police officer, or from an officer who only spoke to the motorist, they may be deterred from pursuing a claim,” says Bain. This can happen even if the cyclist had the right-of-way. “Again, a consultation with a bike lawyer can help the cyclist decide whether to pursue a case against the driver,” says Bain.
“Cyclists are usually pretty tough and want nothing more than to get better quickly so they can get back on their bikes,” says Bain, who can relate to that grit. However, don’t accept the outcome of a bad situation without question because you think you have no legal recourse.
5. Ride aware of the greatest accident risks
Ideally, you’ll never be in a bike-car accident. Your odds of attaining that ideal increase dramatically if you ride alertly, attuned to the most common accident risks.
“Most bicycle-versus-motor-vehicle collisions occur at intersections, with the ‘right hook’ collision being the most common,” says Bain. In this situation, a driver going the same direction as a cyclist turns right at an intersection and either turns into the cyclist or cuts the cyclist off. “This collision occurs most often when a driver speeds past the cyclist then abruptly turns in front of the cyclist,” says Bain. She also notes that another significant cause of right-hook collisions are drivers not signaling their intent to turn right for the statutory distance before starting the turn.
“Another very common collision scenario is the ‘left hook,’ where an oncoming motorist turns left in front of or into a cyclist going straight through the intersection,” says Bain. This type of accident frequently occurs when traffic is backed up and the left-turning driver fails to yield the right-of-way to the cyclist passing through the intersection.
“The third most common collision is, surprisingly, a driver striking a bicyclist in a crosswalk,” says Bain. Other likely collision scenarios include getting “doored” by a motorist exiting a parked vehicle, and a cyclist getting rear-ended by a distracted driver.
Safe cycling is everyone’s responsibility
The rules of the road are designed to help both cyclists and motorists stay safe. Unfortunately, carelessness, an unwillingness to share the road, and especially cell phone distractions are leading to far too many bike-car accidents. While many drivers consider bicyclists a nuisance (or worse), it’s important to remember that more cyclists – particularly more commuting cyclists – mean fewer cars on the road, less pollution, and healthier communities.
It’s in the best interest of operators of all vehicles – regardless of the number of wheels – to respect and support the rights of bicyclists to share the road. And when tragedy occurs, it’s the right of cyclists to get the legal support to which they’re entitled.