Bicycle Accidents – Avoidance & Aftermath
By Ronald H. Rouda and Miles B. Cooper
Bicycling is on the rise. By way of example, bicycling has increased 71% in San Francisco between 2007-2011. And bicycle commuting increased 63% in the 70 largest cities in the United States from 2000-2010. Why? Because bicycling is cost-effective transportation, faster in many cases than public transportation or driving (bike parking is easier in cities than finding a space for a car), and best of all, it’s healthy and fun.
If you want to join those on the road, you need to be aware of some differences between bikes and other vehicles. Bikes have the rights and responsibilities of cars but they tend to be treated differently by motorized traffic. You can improve your chances of avoiding an accident with some preparation.
The most common bicycle incidents we see are getting doored (when a driver or passenger opens the car door without looking to see if a cyclist is passing the car) and riders who get struck by overtaking vehicles.
Don’t get doored: Avoiding getting doored is best done by avoiding the door zone on roads where cars are parked or pulled over. This is the four-to-five feet nearest to a car. This sometimes means taking the lane (occupying a vehicle lane with your bike), which is a cyclists’ right in most, if not all, states. In situations where one cannot stay far enough away from the door there are other precautions to use. Look for silhouettes of occupants or movement. Look for taillights that have just gone out—those frequently indicate a driver who is just about to get out of the car. In tight locations, consider slowing down and moving away as far as one can from the vehicle to have as much of a recovery zone and response time as possible.
Strikes by vehicles coming from behind: The second most common type of bicycle accidents are riders being struck from behind. Avoiding being struck by overtaking vehicles can be more difficult—it is mainly a function of driver behavior. Make sure you are well-lit at twilight, in fog or at night. Avoid sudden lateral movements (swerving into a lane) unless you are certain there are no cars behind you. On suburban and rural roads there are sometimes rumble strips separating the roadway from the shoulder where riders usually ride. With today’s distracted drivers, you should assume that a car that is making contact with the rumble strip behind you is not paying attention. You should move away from the roadway as quickly as possible to avoid that driver.
City riding is not more dangerous than suburban riding: Most people think that busy urban environments like San Francisco or New York City are more dangerous than the open road. We’ve found the opposite to be true. Our most severe cyclist injury and death incidents usually come from rural or open roads. They involve distracted drivers on open roads who do not expect cyclists. The higher vehicle speeds in these areas result in the more serious injuries and deaths.
Ride with confidence and presence—take the lane: They say dogs can sense fear. Drivers seem to do the same. If you hug the curb, weave in and out of parked cars and open spaces and give off a sense of trepidation, drivers will barrel past you. If you ride with confidence, including taking the lane when you need to, drivers will treat you as part of the traffic pattern rather than as part of the landscape.
Light up: Not only is it harder to see cyclists in low-light conditions, drivers are conditioned to look for cars. You can shake that conditioning by making yourself visible. The most effective tools are flashing lights—highly visible flashing red LEDs on the back and white strobe lighting on the front. The less expensive front lights typically don’t provide enough light to be useful to light your path in a constant on mode. You’re better off using them in strobe mode to get drivers’ attention.
Helmets are generally a good idea: The part that can suffer the most damage from even relatively low-speed incidents is your brain. If you tip over and hit your head on the curb, even a slow fall can cause problems. We say generally because there are some studies that indicate helmets are not helpful in some cases. The nuances of those studies are more complicated than we have room to go into here.
Bicycle insurance is now available: If you drive a car, are insured adequately and have health insurance, you are likely protected from liability issues and injury issues. But some riders don’t own a car. In the past, there was no insurance available specifically for bicyclists. That appears to be changing. Better World Club now offers cyclist insurance. It provides up to $100,000 in reimbursement for injuries received while cycling, and liability insurance of up to $1 million in the event of injury to other people or property damage caused by the cyclist. More information can be found here: http://bit.ly/NFk0mn.
An accident is startling by its nature. You had a destination and plans—an accident was not one of them. You need to recognize the changed circumstances. A lot of people want to bounce up, say “I’m fine,” and return to the plan. The shock that comes from the incident can numb you to the severity of the incident. We therefore recommend you take certain steps if you’ve been involved in an accident. If you end up okay, you may not need all the data you’ve gathered. But if you aren’t, you have it available to you.
Tell the other involved parties to wait: Have them wait and give a statement to the police. If they refuse or try to flee, get their plate number, vehicle description and driver description (iPhones with the current software are great for this—tap the button once and flick the screen upward to immediately activate the camera.)
Call 911: The police need to come take a statement. And you might need an ambulance or paramedic. If you are injured badly enough where you can’t do this yourself, ask someone to do it for you.
Get contact information: Ask for any witnesses’ contact information, including email addresses. Business cards are easy to grab and jam into a pocket (just make sure the clothes don’t get cut off by a paramedic and disappear.) You should get the driver’s contact information, insurance information, driver’s license number and date of birth (in case you need to track the driver down later). And make sure you get the incident number from the police officer. Frequently a friendly witness will be willing to assist you in gathering this material if you are not in a place to do it yourself.
Doored? Remind the officer to cite the driver: Surprisingly, many officers are unfamiliar with California Vehicle Code section 22517, which states a driver cannot open a door on the side of moving traffic unless it is safe to do so. This will help you with the insurance adjuster later. Adjusters frequently try to put some of the blame for dooring incidents on the cyclist.
Document the incident: Get pictures of your injuries and damage to your bike. Ask the witnesses to write down what they saw and give you a copy of it. And request a copy of the incident report.
Speak with a lawyer before you speak to the insurance company: Speaking to a contingency fee lawyer (lawyers like us) does not cost you anything. You may find that you don’t need a lawyer to resolve your case. But there’s a peace of mind that comes with discussing your case. A knowledgeable lawyer can help address your concerns and prevent you from the potential pitfalls that come with dealing with an insurance company.
Our firm regularly helps bicyclists and their families with bicycle injury and death cases. We ride ourselves and take pride in helping the bicycling community.
 San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau
 For more detail on insurance issues and how to properly protect yourself, see our Winter 2012 edition of Righting Wrongs.