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Bicycle hitting pot hole
Bicycle accidents are a bigger problem than a lot of people realize.

We at Torklaw know only too well that thousands of cyclists are injured or killed in the United States every year. Unfortunately, the general public is largely unaware of the scope of the problem.

Bicycle accidents can take a variety of forms, but frequently involve a collision between a bicycle and a car or other motor vehicle. Even though the motorist is often the responsible party in such an accident, cyclists are usually the more severely injured party in these collisions.

Cyclists, like pedestrians, suffer because of the huge size differential between them and cars. Unlike occupants of passenger cars, who are protected by seat belts, airbags, and the walls of the car itself, cyclists typically have minimal protection aside from a helmet (and sometimes not even that). No cyclist is a match for a huge several-ton car.

The history of bicycle accidents goes back a long way. Bicycles were invented in the mid-19th century, only a few decades before cars came onto the scene. For the entire time that these two vehicles have shared the roads, they have been vying with each other for space.

In fact, one of the first recorded automobile accidents in the United States involved a bicycle: on May 30, 1896, cyclist Ebeling Thomas was struck by a “horseless wagon” operated by Henry Wells on Broadway in New York City.

Ebeling Thomas suffered a broken leg, and since then, relations between cyclists and drivers have been coasting steadily downhill. Cyclists often see drivers as reckless and unconcerned with bicyclists’ safety, while drivers, for their part, frequently see cyclists as a nuisance and resent having to share the road with them.

This fundamental conflict won’t be resolved anytime soon. And unfortunately, it does have a bearing on accident law: cyclists frequently face a certain degree of bias when their cases go to trial in the personal injury legal system. This bias is not as bad as it is for motorcyclists, but it does exist.

However, this obstacle is not insurmountable, and with the right lawyer, you are far from bereft of options. If you were injured in a bicycle accident, then you have every right to sue the party or parties responsible for your accident, and seek compensation for all injuries and harms you have suffered. In this article, we will discuss how that can be done.

The Place of Bicycles on the Road

Cyclists have the same right to use the public roads that the drivers of automobiles do. This is a firmly enshrined principle within traffic law, and dates back to the first cases involving cyclists over a century ago.

Cyclists also have the same obligations as automobile drivers. They are expected to obey red lights, stop signs, and all other traffic signs and signals, to ride in the same direction as traffic, to follow right-of-way rules, and to exhibit reasonable care for other users of the road. Cyclists who violate these rules may be impeded in their ability to file a personal injury claim.

There are only a few rules which are different for cyclists than for automobile drivers. For instance, cyclists are expected to travel in designated bike lanes. If there is no bike lane, then cyclists should keep to the far right side of the road. But aside from this and a few other stipulations, cyclists are treated just like cars on the road.

This, at least, is how the law works in principle. Unfortunately, the principle isn’t always recognized in practice. All too often, biased police officers, jurors, and judges prevent cyclists from getting the justice they deserve in the personal injury system, even if they were legitimately wronged.

Most personal injury cases never go to trial. But the bias in the court system has ripple effects down the entire personal injury hierarchy. Insurance adjusters regularly offer cyclists less than they would offer a similarly wronged driver, because they know that the cyclist will have less of a chance of winning if the case goes to trial.

In reality, cyclists are no more likely than automobile drivers to be at fault in a collision, and perhaps even less likely. Precise numbers on this point are hard to come by, but the available data shows that cyclists are at least as likely to be victims as they are to be violators. And yet many cyclists end up getting the short end of the stick in the legal realm.

By the Numbers

Several hundred Americans are killed in bicycle crashes every year. In 2015, the number stood at 818, a figure which has been fairly consistent over the years, with slight fluctuations (although it has increased slightly in the last couple years). These cyclist deaths make up around 2% of all traffic fatalities in America.

This might not sound like a lot, but proportional to the number of bicycle trips taken in the United States, it represents an outsize risk. In terms of distance traveled, riding a bicycle is actually more dangerous than driving or riding in a car (although the numbers on this are also somewhat fuzzy, since we don’t know exactly how many miles people travel by bicycle each year).

In addition, tens of thousands of cyclists are injured in the United States every year. The number of injured bicyclists stood at 45,000 in 2015, although there may be even more injuries that are not reported to police. Cyclist injuries can range from minor to very severe.

Man riding bike through traffic

Risk Factors for Bicycle Accidents

Bicycle accidents can happen absolutely anywhere and at any time, and can affect anyone riding a bicycle. That said, there are a number of factors which are known to increase the risk of bicycle accidents:

  • Age and Gender. Children and teenagers are most likely to be injured in bicycle accidents. However, older middle-aged adults between the ages of 50 and 60 are the most likely to be killed in bicycle accidents. Men are also significantly more likely than women to be both injured and killed.
  • Time. Bicycle accidents are most likely to happen during evening rush hour, and the period with the most bicycle accidents is the three-hour window between 6 and 9 p.m. The highest percentage of bicycle accidents occurs during the summer months, from June to August.
  • Location. Bicycle accidents are more likely to happen in urban, rather than rural areas, where there is more traffic and bicycles may be harder to for drivers spot. They are also more likely to occur at intersections, where traffic may be coming from several directions at once and the bicyclist faces more threats, although the majority of bicycle accidents do not happen at intersections.
  • Helmet Use. Wearing a helmet decreases the risk of head injuries by a significant degree, perhaps as much as 50%. Head injuries are a leading cause of death and serious injury for cyclists.(A note on helmets and the law: Helmet use for adult cyclists in the United States is generally a matter of personal choice, although many states mandate helmets for minors and a few local jurisdictions do for adults. However, we at Torklaw encourage every cyclist to prioritize their own safety and wear a helmet. For more information, check out Torklaw’s “Put A Lid On It!” bicycle helmet safety awareness campaign.)
  • Alcohol. A significant number of bicycle crashes (around 35%) involved intoxication, either on the part of the driver or that of the cyclist. Drunk cyclists experience all the same impairments that drunk drivers do, including changes in vision, reaction time, depth perception, and judgment. Drunk cycling (while not typically taken as seriously as drunk driving) is still considered a criminal offense. For all these reasons, we encourage cyclists to avoid cycling under the influence!
  • Visibility. Many bicycle accidents occur at night and in conditions when visibility is poor. Every cyclist who is out after dark should have lights on the front and back of their bicycles, as well as reflectors on the bicycle frame, tires, and pedals which allow the cyclist to be seen from behind at night. This is good sense and may also be the law, depending on which state you live in. It also helps to wear brightly colored neon or reflective clothing if you are riding at night.

Causes of Bicycle Accidents

Bicycle accidents involving cars can happen in a variety of ways. Some of the most common causes involve cars turning left or right without yielding for cyclists, cars rear-ending cyclists when the cyclists are trying to pass another car which has been parked in the bike lane, and the drivers of parked cars opening their doors in the path of a bicyclist.

However, there are many other causes of bicycle accidents aside from collisions with cars. In fact, although we’ve been focusing mainly on vehicular bicycle accidents so far in this article, the majority of bicycle accidents are non-vehicular.

Accidents involving cars constitute only around 30% of all bicycle accidents. Vehicular accidents are by far the most serious of all bicycle accidents, and are most likely to result in death or catastrophic injury; 90% of all cyclists deaths involve a collision with a car. But this does not mean that other accidents are irrelevant! Non-vehicular accidents can still be very severe, and have the potential to result in very successful lawsuits.

So, how do all these other accidents happen? There are a variety of causes. Many cyclists are injured falling off their bicycles. They may lose their balance, or else they may fall because of a poorly repaired roadway. Some cyclists are even injured after being startled by a dog or other animal!

Cyclists can collide with any number of objects, including curbs, trees, debris in the road, pedestrians, and even other bicycles. Some cyclists simply fall because they were not paying attention. Finally, some cyclists get in accidents because of poor design of the bicycle by the original manufacturer, or because of poor repair of the bicycle at the maintenance shop.

Man with Broken Bike upset

Who Can Be Held Liable in a Bicycle Accident?

The cause of the bicycle accident has a strong bearing on who can be held legally liable for the accident. Different types of accidents are dealt with by the courts in very different ways.

Now, not all bicycle accidents will be considered legally actionable. Cyclists also have a duty to bike carefully, and take responsibility for their own actions. However, many accidents will be grounds for a lawsuit, even if there was no driver involved.

If a bicycle was poorly designed or maintained, then the people responsible for manufacturing or repairing the bicycle may be held liable for any accidents that occur as a result of their negligence. If a dog jumped at a cyclist and caused an injury, then the dog’s owner may be held liable.

If a pedestrian walked out in the roadway when the cyclist had the right-of-way, then the pedestrian may be held liable for the cyclist’s injuries. And if the road was in poor repair or the bicyclist fell because of debris, then the government agencies responsible for designing or maintaining the road can be held liable.

All of these different types lawsuits have their own complications, and not all fall under the umbrella of auto accident law (for instance, bicycle design flaws will fall under products liability law). We can’t get into all of them here, but if you end up filing such a lawsuit, we’ll be happy to go into greater detail with you!

Determining Fault in Bicycle Accidents

Drivers have a duty to drive safely. This includes both the duty to follow all of the rules of the road (such as speed limits, stop signs, and so forth) and the duty to exercise ordinary care towards the safety of other road users (including cyclists) when driving, even if this care is not explicitly specified in a legal code.

As we mentioned above, not every collision involving a car and a bicycle is the fault of the driver. Cyclists have the same responsibility that drivers have to ride carefully, and sometimes a cyclist is partly, or wholly, at fault for an accident.

If a cyclist is wholly at fault for an accident, then they will be unable to collect any damages in the personal injury legal system. In fact, they might actually have to pay damages for any injuries they have caused to the driver or other parties involved in the crash! Since bicycles aren’t as big as cars and typically don’t have the power to do significant damage, this isn’t terribly common, but it can and does happen.

What happens if both the bicyclist and the driver shared fault? Bicycle accidents can be complex things, after all, and sometimes there are several factors involved. In these cases, where a cyclist is partly responsible for an accident, then they may receive damages at a diminished rate according to the rules of comparative negligence.

How does comparative negligence work? Although the precise rules vary from state to state, the basic concept is this: a person who was injured in an accident in which they were partly at fault is eligible to receive damages at a reduced rate, relative to the degree to which they were at fault.

For instance, let’s say that you were in a bicycle accident with a car, and the courts determine that the driver was 80% responsible for the accident, and you were 20% responsible. Under a comparative negligence standard, you will then be liable to receive 80% of the damages to which you would have otherwise been entitled.

Comparative negligence might seem like a burden, but it’s actually one of the best things there is for personal injury accident plaintiffs. The old standard of contributory negligence, which is no longer used in most states, stipulated that if you were even one percent responsible for an accident, you were not eligible to receive any damages at all.

Comparative negligence allows plaintiffs who may have shared fault to still receive significant damages. Over the years, there have been judgments and settlements awarded to plaintiffs which were huge, despite being diminished by comparative negligence.

So don’t assume that you don’t have a case, just because you might have made some mistakes in the lead-up to the accident! Let us be the judges of that.

Bicycle Accidents and Children

Bicycle accident law is also affected by whether the cyclist was a child. Drivers are expected to demonstrate a higher-than-normal duty of care (sometimes known as “unusual care”) when child cyclists are present, because it is recognized that what constitutes reasonable care around an adult might not necessarily constitute reasonable care around a child.

In fact, drivers are even expected to exhibit unusual care if they so much as drive through areas in which children are likely to be found, such as schools or playgrounds, even if they do not see any children in the immediate vicinity!

The corollary to this is that children are held to a lower standard of conduct in a bicycle accident case, because the law recognizes that they are not as capable as adults are of making responsible decisions.

At what age is a child legally expected to exercise care for their own safety? It depends, but generally children under the age of four are not recognized as having the ability to be negligent, and the law is more vague and open to the court’s interpretation for children older than four but younger than fourteen. Older teenagers will likely face some legal responsibility.

So, is a driver automatically at fault in any accident involving a child cyclist? Not necessarily; some drivers could not have reasonably done anything to avoid an accident. However, it does mean that the law weighs more heavily on the side of child cyclists, and so if a child has been injured in an accident with a car, the prognosis for the legal case is probably good.

Bicycle Racing Accidents

So far, we’ve been talking mainly about amateur cyclists who go out on ordinary roads and bike paths. But some cyclists, both amateurs and professionals, decide to take their love of cycling to the next level, and participate in bicycle races.

As you might imagine, bicycle races are high-stakes, ultra-competitive events, and frequently hotbeds of serious bicycle accidents. So if you get in a bicycle crash while racing, can you sue the owners and sponsors of the race?

In most cases, the answer is no. Cyclists who participate in races are typically required to sign an express waiver of release of liability before the race. This waiver is essentially a promise that you will not sue the operators of the race for any accidents you suffer in the course of the race. It even prevents your heirs from filing a wrongful death action if you die in the race.

There are only a few ways around this sort of waiver. For one, the waiver must be written in clear language that the signer should reasonably be able to understand. It can’t be obscured or have its true intent hidden from the signer. For another, a cyclist who participates in a race will likely still be able to sue for gross negligence if the owners of the race do something especially stupid and dangerous, no matter how many forms they have signed.

How to Win a Bicycle Accident Lawsuit

In a bicycle accident lawsuit, just as in any other type of lawsuit, you, the plaintiff, will have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant (the person who caused you the injury) was negligent. Negligence in the personal injury legal system has four elements: duty, breach, harm, and causation.

In other words, you must prove that the defendant had a duty to you (such as the duty to drive safely and with care for nearby cyclists), that they breached this duty, that you suffered some harm (such as an injury or damaged property), and that this harm was caused directly by the other driver’s breach of duty.

In some cases, proving negligence is a matter of demonstrating that the defendant lacked the care for other drivers on the road that a reasonable person would have taken in their position. In other cases, it is enough for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant violated a traffic law (such as running a red light), and that this violation led to the plaintiff’s injuries. This legal standard is known as negligence per se.

If a driver’s conduct is especially egregious, the charge can escalate from mere negligence to recklessness, which occurs when a driver shows extreme disregard for the safety of others. Examples of recklessness include street racing, fleeing police, and driving at very high speeds. Although reckless driving can cause extreme harm to cyclists, it may also increase the cyclist’s chances of winning high amounts of damages.

Damages in a Bicycle Accident

As with other types of accidents, there are a few different types of damages that you are allowed to collect in a bicycle accident lawsuit.

The three different types of damages are:

  1. Economic damages, which include losses that can be strictly quantified, such as medical bills, damaged property, and lost wages;
  2. Noneconomic damages, which include less easily quantifiable costs, such as pain and suffering; and
  3. Punitive damages, which are sometimes awarded by a jury for no other purpose than to punish an especially egregious offender.

Of course, the types of damages which you are eligible to collect will vary significantly based on the precise nature of your case and the quality of legal representation which you have.

Does Auto Insurance Cover Cyclists?

Yes, if you were injured in a cycling accident, you should be covered by auto insurance. If the accident was the fault of an automobile driver, then the at-fault driver’s auto insurance will cover your injuries. They will likely try to deny your claim, and if they do, this is when a personal injury lawsuit starts to become necessary.

If you have personal injury protection coverage on your auto insurance, and you were involved in a collision with a car, then you may also be eligible to receive damages from your own auto insurance. This is true even if you were riding a bicycle (as opposed to driving a car) at the time of the accident.

Your own medical insurance may also help cover damages for any injuries you suffered in the accident. Your medical insurance will pay your bills, but afterwards it will seek reimbursement from the responsible driver’s auto insurance behind the scenes, through the process of inter-insurance arbitration.

A minority of states, including New York, are no-fault insurance states. In these states, insurance companies are required to pay medical bills whenever anyone was injured in a crash, completely irrespective of who was at fault. If you have no-fault coverage in New York, then you may be eligible to collect damages up to the required legal limit.

What to Do If You Are in a Bicycle Accident

Immediately after a bicycle accident, there are a number of steps which you must take. Some are legally required, while others are not, but are still in your own legal or medical best interest. These steps are generally the same as those which you would take after any other type of motor vehicle accident, so some of them will likely be familiar to you.

The first and most important step is to make sure that you are safe. If you are in the middle of a road or a bike path, get over to the side, and out of the way of cars or other bicycles. You should also call 911, even if you don’t think you’re severely injured. The adrenaline rush after an accident can hide injuries, and some common types of accident injuries frequently have delayed symptoms.

If you were in an accident with a car or another vehicle, then the next thing you should do is stop and exchange information, including name, contact, license, and insurance information, with the other driver. Don’t get angry, but don’t apologize either; this can be taken as an admission of fault. Just be polite and businesslike. Unfortunately, some cars do flee the scene, so if this happens, try to get the most detailed description of the vehicle possible, including make, model, color, license plate, description of driver, and any damage, and report it to the police.

When the police come, they will take notes about the accident, and later on compile these notices into a police accident report. Accident reports are important in any personal injury case; they typically include an assessment of fault, which may be different from that which was reached by your insurance, and this assessment of fault will likely carry significant weight in your personal injury case.

That’s why it’s important to make sure the police officer hears your side of the story at the scene (especially since some officers unfortunately overlook cyclists), and why it’s also important to order a copy of your police report later. This may cost a nominal fee, although you can order a free copy through our site, with no obligations attached. If there are mistakes in the police report, you may petition to have it amended.

Even if you aren’t hospitalized immediately, then be sure to see a doctor soon after your accident. This is important both for your health and for your case; medical bills and records are the backbone of a personal injury lawsuit. In fact, you should keep detailed records of all your losses after an accident, including lost wages and bills for damaged property, and even the less tangible ways in which your injuries interfere with your everyday life (i.e. noneconomic damages).

If you are in any condition to do so, then you should begin to collect evidence at the scene of the accident. Get the names and contact information of any witnesses who happen to be nearby, and take pictures of the scene of the accident and your injuries. If your bicycle, helmet, or clothing were damaged in the accident, then leave these as they are and don’t attempt to fix or clean them. As soon as possible, write down some notes about how the accident happened, and where you and the car were situated at the time.

Now, the driver’s insurance company will be trying to reach you in the days after the accident. Do not talk to them! These companies want to pay you as little as possible, and they have decades of experience in tricking people like you. Never, ever talk to any lawyers or insurance adjusters without your own lawyer present, and don’t accept any offers they may make, no matter how generous they may seem. If they weren’t afraid you might get more from them, they wouldn’t be making such an offer.

Instead, you should hire a strong, experienced personal injury attorney, and leave all of the advocacy and fighting to your lawyer. An attorney who knows the ins and outs of the system, and how to beat it, will be able to take up the burden of your case so that you don’t have to. They will also, perhaps even more importantly, be able to take a mental burden off your shoulders so that you can focus full-time on recovering from the accident and healing from your injuries.

Torklaw attorneys have extensive experience in dealing with bicycle accidents, and we are willing to do what it takes to ensure that our clients receive the highest compensation levels that they can possibly get. If you have been in a bicycle accident, whether it was caused by a car, a defective or poorly maintained roadway, or another factor, we would like to hear your story and figure out what we can do for you.

Call Torklaw today for a FREE consultation!

For more information on bicycle accidents, check out Reza’s book Accidents Happen: A Consumer’s Guide to the Personal Injury and Wrongful Death System. The book has an entire chapter which deals with bicycle accidents, and if you live in California, we will allow you to order a free copy.