Washington Lawyer

Confusion Over D.C. Bike Laws Leads Many to Ask: Who's At Fault?

From Washington Lawyer, January 2015

By David O’Boyle

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of commuters choosing to ride a bicycle to and from work increased by more than 250 percent, and among cities in the United States, the District of Columbia ranks third in the percentage of the population who bike to work. The number of cyclists continues to grow, and as more people pedal onto the roadways in the District each year, the number of accidents and collisions involving bicyclists has grown steadily.

Under District regulations bicycles are treated as vehicles, and cyclists must follow the same laws as cars, trucks, and motorcycles. The rapid growth in the number of bicyclists on the road, as well as the expansion of bicycle infrastructure, has created a complex, confusing, and sometimes contradictory regulatory environment to navigate for cyclists, drivers, law enforcement officials, insurance claims adjusters, and lawyers.

Recently, the D.C. Bar Sections Office hosted the panel discussion “Examining D.C. Bike Laws: Who’s at Fault?” during which participants spoke about bike laws in the District and legal considerations for bicyclists and the lawyers representing them after an accident. Peter T. Anderson, an associate at Ashcraft & Gerel, LLP, served as moderator.

Unfamiliar Territory
According to Cory Bilton, a personal injury attorney who has represented bicyclists after accidents, cases involving bikes and collisions contain unique factors that are often unfamiliar to many people when determining liability. Part of this is due to the numerous surfaces on which cyclists can ride, the exposed nature of riding a bicycle, the relative size of a bicyclist compared to other vehicles on a roadway, and the uncertainty about the duties of bicyclists and motorists on the roadway.

“There’s less clarity on what the duties of bicyclists are,” Bilton says. “Some of this is shared by bicyclists, it’s shared by a lot of motorists, but it’s also shared by people within the legal system, whether it’s lawyers, judges, witnesses, or insurers.”

Bicycle accidents can occur in a bike lane, in the roadway, on the sidewalk, or on a trail, and the way in which bicyclists interact with other vehicles is much different than the way cars interact with other cars. For example, it is rare for two cars to be in the same lane, side-by-side, but bicyclists frequently ride abreast with cars in the same lane. This leads to the types of accidents that are unfamiliar to many people such as a “right hook” collision in which a car to the left of a cyclist turns right either into the cyclist or directly in front of him or her, causing the cyclist to run into the car.

The unfamiliar nature of bicycle collisions and accidents can hinder a cyclist’s chances of recovering damages. Motorists, witnesses, law enforcement officials, and jurors may not understand the various regulations governing bicycles or the circumstances that can lead to a cyclist’s breaking of a regulation.

These factors must be considered when a lawyer determines whether to represent a bicyclist following an accident, and lawyers must be thorough when collecting information about an accident. If a bicyclist was not riding in accordance with the law, or was riding in a dangerous manner leading up to an accident, his or her chance of winning a case can be minimal.

“One of the big lessons that I’ve learned in representing bicyclists is that . . . the facts and details matter a lot more, particularly the facts as they relate to how the incident occurred,” Bilton says. “Everything from what the person was wearing to what the bike looks like to a step-by-step analysis” is more important than in a typical motor vehicle collision case.

Confusion Over the Law
Navigating the roadways can be a challenging endeavor for bicyclists. There is often confusion over where a cyclist may legally enter and exit bike lanes, and cars and other objects frequently block portions of the bike lanes, forcing bicyclists into the road. Many bicyclists in the District are unaware that they are prohibited from riding on the sidewalks in the central business district, an area which is bounded by 2nd Street NE and SE, D Street SE and SW, 14th Street NW and SW, Constitution Avenue NW, 23rd Street NW, and Massachusetts Avenue NW, where many bicyclists ride on the sidewalks to reach bike racks or offices.

Additionally, law enforcement officials may not understand the laws and regulations applying to bicyclists and sometimes write erroneous citations. For instance, when a bicyclist is “doored,” which occurs when a motorist opens his or her door into a bicyclist, it is the motorist who is at fault, according to District law, but some law enforcement officials have ticketed cyclists improperly for riding too close to traffic.

“You have regulatory signs that say to do things that conflict with the vehicle code, and then you have police officials who will tell you to do something totally
different, and they have the regulation that says you must do what an officer says,” says Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “Add in the occasional construction project with its approved [District of Columbia Department of Transportation] alternate routing plan that you’re also supposed to follow, and eventually you just end up in this morass of conflicting legality.”

Contributory Negligence
District of Columbia tort law is governed by the legal doctrine of contributory negligence. Under the contributory negligence doctrine, a plaintiff seeking to recover damages could be barred from doing so if he or she acted in a negligent manner that was a proximate cause of his or her own injuries.

Advocates for reform of the contributory negligence doctrine in D.C. tort law argue that it is unfair because a bicyclist whose negligence contributed to a relatively small percentage of the accident can be barred from recovering any damages. The advocates also emphasize that bicyclists are vulnerable roadway users who, when in an accident, are often injured and require trips to the emergency room, replacement of expensive equipment, and time off from work. Motorists, on the other hand, are rarely injured in accidents involving bicycles, and their vehicles often sustain minimal damage.

According to advocates, contributory negligence functions as an automatic dismissal of many bicyclists’ insurance claims, and ultimately, their ability to take a case to court. A cyclist whose taillight or headlight went out before an accident, a cyclist who turned out of a bike lane and into the road to avoid a parked car, or a cyclist who was given an improper citation will often have their insurance claim denied.

Regardless of how minimal a bicyclist’s negligence was in contributing to an accident, his or her claims can be denied under the contributory negligence standard. After the initial denial of an insurance claim, and because the damages sought often do not have a high enough dollar value, it is very difficult for bicyclists to find a lawyer willing to represent them in court.

“If the case sounds like a contributory negligence defense, nine times out of 10, we’re going to say no,” Bilton says. “The only time we would take the case is if the damages were so enormous that we thought that it would be worth taking the risk.”

To address this, D.C. Councilmember David Grosso in July introduced the Bicycle and Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2014 to shift D.C. tort law under the doctrine of comparative negligence for accidents between bicyclists and motorists.
Under the proposed legislation, a bicyclist injured in an accident can receive damages proportionate to the level the motorist was at fault. If the legislation passes, a bicyclist seeking $1,000 in damages who is found to be 25 percent at fault in the accident would ultimately receive $750.

Grosso’s bill before the Council was tabled in November. Councilmembers cited the need for more time to work on the legislation after consulting with bicyclist associations, representatives from the insurance industry, and trial lawyers. It is likely that the discussions on the legislation will continue in January, after the new Council convenes.

The Cost of Change
Currently, the District of Columbia and four states use the contributory negligence standard: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia. Other states either shifted from contributory negligence or never used the standard.

According to Eric M. Goldberg, vice president of state government affairs at the American Insurance Association, the proposed legislation before the D.C. Council could prove costly for the District.

“D.C. currently has a contributory negligence tort law, which bars a person from recovering damages if they were at fault,” Goldberg says. “In contrast, the bill before the Council would adopt a pure comparative negligence standard for cyclists involved in accidents with other vehicles, [which would] allow a judge to apportion damages in accordance with the plaintiff and defendant’s relative fault.”

Under the law, a bicyclist could attempt to recover damages following an accident in which they were at greater fault than the motorist. “Not surprisingly, therefore, pure comparative negligence has been criticized because it allows a plaintiff who is primarily at fault to recover from a lesser at-fault defendant and recover some damages,” Goldberg says.

If the comparative negligence standard is adopted, there will likely be an increase in the amount of insurance claims paid to bicyclists following accidents with motor vehicles. The increase in insurance claims could lead to higher premiums for motorists, and could have a negative impact on the District government and other businesses that own fleet vehicles requiring insurance, opponents say.

According to a study by the Insurance Research Council, 11.9 percent of motorists in the District are uninsured. Opponents of the legislation worry that the increased cost of vehicle insurance would be passed on to consumers and drive many low-income motorists to drop their coverage, increasing the number of uninsured motorists on the roadways.

Better Education and Law Enforcement
The issue of contributory negligence is only one problem facing bicyclists and drivers. There is vast uncertainty surrounding their responsibilities and interactions on the road. Law enforcement officials are sometimes confused over regulations and how they apply to cyclists in the various environments in which they ride.

The behavior of some bicyclists is an issue as well. Many people can recall at least one instance when a bicyclist rode through a red light or failed to fully stop at a stop sign. Many cyclists are even unaware that they are required to come to a stop at stop signs.
Despite the disagreements over contributory negligence, motorists and bicyclists alike agree that better understanding and enforcement of the laws and regulations governing drivers and cyclists is required to make roadways safe for all users.

“By talking about the duty of bicyclists and talking about how laws apply to bicyclists more broadly, whether it’s through education or debate, it is very important to educate our community,” Bilton says. “It is only because the whole community knows what the rules are that we can see any sort of justice for one group or the other.”

Learn more information about the State of Biking in D.C.

Reach David O’Boyle at [email protected].