Crashes with Cars: Before the Crash

This article is adapted from the Winter 2012 “Ask the Experts” column of BCM’s newsletter, “Maine Cyclist”. In this first part of a two-part series about crashes with cars, we discuss preventative measures, both to avoid having a crash at all, as well as making sure you are not limiting your options should you get into on.

The Bicycle Coalition of Maine frequently fields questions from cyclists who have been in a collision with a car. Since it’s obviously preferable not to have a crash in the first place, let’s focus first on proactively minimizing your physical and liability risk, followed by what to do if you get into a crash.

(A quick note on terminology: We prefer to use the word “crash” or “collision”, not “accident”. Although according to the dictionary, accident is actually appropriate when there is a lack of intent, or when the incident was through no fault of the injured person, common everyday usage also often implies a lack of cause or avoidability. “It was just an accident” sometimes implies that it was no one’s fault, not just that it was unintentional. However, almost all crashes are the result of one or both drivers either doing something illegal or at least with inappropriate caution. Accordingly, they almost always could have been avoided by one or both parties. So to avoid this confusion, even though “accident” may be correct according to the dictionary, we still prefer to use “crash” or “collision”.)

When riding on roads, driving your bike largely as you would drive a car is the best way to stay safe. Follow the rules of the road; that keeps you visible and predictable. Drivers will know better what to expect from you, especially at intersections where most crashes happen.

Another important reason to ride legally is your liability should you get into a crash. If you were not riding legally at the time of the crash, you almost certainly will be assigned the blame. You will have little chance of recovering any money from the motorist’s insurance company, and you may find yourself sued for his or her damages! (See this column for more about insurance and liability

Here is a quick summary of your legal responsibilities as a bicyclist:

  • Follow all rules of the road for vehicles, especially riding on the right side, obeying all traffic signs and signals and using the appropriate intersection lane.
  • Maintain working brakes.
  • Signal your turns and stops.
  • Do not ride in pedestrian facilities.
  •  At night, use lights and reflectors.
  •  Do not carry passengers or cargo in ways the bicycle is not designed for.

 In addition to those legal requirements, we also strongly advise you to:

  •  Wear a helmet even if you are an adult. (Maine law says children under 16 must wear helmets.)
  •  Wear bright, visible clothing, or
  •  Use more than the bare legal minimum of lighting.

Although this last set are not legally required, law enforcement and insurance companies may consider your failure to do any of the above as “contributory negligence.” A lawyer may be less willing to take your case because of the decreased chance of success. Unfortunate, but true.

Next time: What if, despite your bests precautions, you are hit?

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