DOORED BIKER DEALT INDIGNITY

October 11, 2005

    I have an honest-to-goodness bike safety question for you. It's about bikes and cars, where we're supposed to ride, and how to work with the law.
    The other day a friend was riding through a downtown area. Traffic was stopped and she was going down the road between the curb and the lane of unmoving traffic, heading toward the stoplight. The passenger in a car that was waiting for the light suddenly opened the door and hit her, throwing her off her bike.
    The passenger and driver were kind and helpful until the police officer showed up and asserted that the cyclist was in the wrong. The officer, who did not witness the crash, said that a) the cyclist was weaving in and out of traffic, and b) in lieu of bike lanes, bikes are supposed to ride in the lane with traffic, even when traffic is moving. On that basis my friend was ticketed $75 for a moving violation and her driver license taken away until she goes to court.
    I read through the city laws on bike safety and while it states that bikes must obey the same laws as cars, it also states that in lieu of a bike lane, bikes belong as far to the right of the road as possible, practicing caution in areas of stopped vehicles. Are you clear enough on the laws to know if this accident actually constitutes a moving violation? Are bikes supposed to stop when traffic is stopped? Are we supposed to share lanes with cars? And if so, how do I keep drivers from honking at me because I'm going half their speed?

Gabrielle S.

Gabrielle:
    I predict that your friend will beat the ticket that she shouldn’t have gotten. I just hope she recovers fully from her injury.
    As with most car-bike crashes we’ve several issues to look at: (1) who violated the law (and how); (2) what to do next; and (3) who could have done something different to avoid the crash—often not the same as (1).
    First, who violated the law? In Illinois where I live (and in most U.S. states) the law says that anyone opening a car door must first make sure they can do it safely—meaning that they won’t slam someone coming down the street. And in most states, laws say that bike riders must ride as far to the right as “practicable,” which most cycling educators interpret as “reasonable and safe.” In some instances, this means riding in the middle of a lane.
    You don’t identify the law under which the police officer ticketed your friend, but the above begs the question. In many car-bike crashes police assume fault on the part the bike rider, and seek the most convenient applicable law. In a pinch (pun intended) some police officers will ticket the biker for passing on the right—a law which most bike advocates feel doesn’t apply to bikers, but in most places doesn’t clearly exempt them.
    If it comes to arguing in court (and it often doesn’t), a savvy attorney might maintain that the “no passing on the right” law clearly doesn’t apply, as bicycle riders pass on the right all the time. (The state of Kentucky has tried to address this ambiguity, as described in my pal Paul Schimek’s excellent “Slow Moving Vehicle” discussion.) More likely the cop won’t show up or the judge will throw out the case right away.
    What should your friend do next? She has to deal with two things: Beating that ticket and getting her losses paid for. She obviously has a defense, so she should get herself a lawyer for court. In many major cities, local bike-advocacy groups can refer crash victims to lawyers who specialize in bike cases and work for free or cheap. And what if crash victims want to lean on the offender or their insurance company to pay for medical or repair costs? They can get the inside dope from the section called “What to do after a crash” in my book, Urban Bikers’ Tricks & Tips.
    Let’s move to the issue that, for me, has the most potential short-term impact (no pun intended): How could we have avoided this crash? In the U.S., slapdash motorists and passengers door bike riders every day—and that won’t change any time soon. So urban bikers must use simple but effective tactics to defend themselves.
    Tactic 1: Don’t ride or pass in the door zone (the 3 to 4 feet
on either side of stopped or parked cars). Tactic 2: If you must ride in the door zone, slow way down, cover your brake levers, and get ready to stop suddenly. In other words: Expect a door to open.
    I don’t want clueless car occupants to clock your friend again—so I hope you’ll pass along my advice.

Mr Bike



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