Cycling has many benefits. It’s healthy. It’s fun to explore the beautiful Front Range region out in the open air. It’s a great way to unwind and reduce stress. And if you live close enough to work, it’s a green way to commute. But being out on the roads with cars, trucks, buses, and other large vehicles can leave you vulnerable. In fact, the City of Fort Collins notes in its Annual Roadway Safety Report that although bike crashes account for only a small percentage of overall crashes in the City, they are about 10 times more likely to result in serious injuries and about 4 times more likely to be fatal.
Having investigated many bike versus motor vehicle crashes over many years, we’ve noticed that some types of incidents and issues come up over and over again. This article focuses on those common issues, how they can factor into a legal claim, and the steps you can take to avoid them.
Ride With the Direction of Traffic
An argument is sometimes made that riding a bike opposite to the flow of traffic is safer because you can see oncoming cars and dive off the side of the road if a vehicle drifts into the shoulder or bike lane. We’re not going to state an opinion on whether or not there is any merit to this belief because the fact is that very few crashes occur from a car hitting a cyclist on a straight stretch of road. In Fort Collins, approximately 90% of all bicycle-car collisions occur in intersections and 25% of all crashes involve wrong-way riding!
Also, riding against the flow of traffic violates the law. C.R.S. § 42-4-1412 states that generally, “A person riding a bicycle or electrical assisted bicycle has all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle. . .” Because a bike rider has the same duties as the driver of a car, the cyclist must move in the same direction as the rest of traffic. By violating the law, the cyclist probably has comparative fault for causing the collision. Comparative fault reduces the amount that a person can recover in a personal injury case and, if the fault on the cyclist reaches 50% or more, the cyclist cannot recover anything, even if the car driver was also negligent.
Another reason that going against the flow of traffic is dangerous is because drivers are often not expecting someone to be going the wrong way. If they turn left or right, they may only check for cyclists coming in the expected direction and fail to see a cyclist going the wrong way.
While nothing can guarantee 100% safety on the road, statistics seem to show that going the wrong way makes a biker more susceptible to being hit by a car and gives the driver an argument that the bike was at fault for causing the crash.
Use Lights and Reflectors
In Colorado, bicycles are required to have lights and reflectors after sunset or whenever visibility is less than 1000 feet due to rain, fog or other conditions. C.R.S. §§ 42-4-221 & 42-4-204. Specifically, during these times, a bicycle must have three (3) things:
- A front light “emitting a white light visible from a distance of at least five hundred feet to the front.” C.R.S. § 42-4-221(2).
- A rear light or reflector “visible for six hundred feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle.” C.R.S. § 42-4-221(3).
- Side reflectors visible “for six hundred feet when directly in front of lawful lower beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle” or lights “visible from both sides from a distance of at least five hundred feet.” C.R.S. § 42-4-221(4).
Failing to have appropriate lights or reflectors is a common way that defendants and their insurance companies try to undermine injured cyclists’ claims. Sometime having the light would not have changed the outcome, but it does give the defense a handy argument. Having the appropriate lights and reflectors will make you more visible and take away an argument from the defense.
Watch for Turning Vehicles
If a cyclist is following the rules, a driver should notice the cyclist. But sometimes they just don’t. Assume nothing and ride defensively. We have helped several clients who have been hit with the “right hook” or the “left cross.” The “right hook” occurs when a driver passes the cyclist going in the same direction as the cyclist and then immediately makes a right turn. The “left cross” occurs when an oncoming driver turns left directly into the path of the cyclist.
Sometimes the driver sees the cyclist but thinks they can turn before the cyclist gets there. Other times they report never seeing the cyclist. Either way, the result is the cyclist getting hit by the front of the car, crashing into the side of the car, or smashing through one of the car’s windows.
These are two of the most frustrating collisions because they happen to cyclists who are doing nothing wrong. Avoiding these collisions requires vigilance and defensive riding. Always use caution when approaching an intersection, especially if there is a car in front of you that might possibly turn right or a car coming towards you that might turn left. Go at a speed that allows you to brake or take other safe evasive action to avoid careless turning drivers.
Avoid Getting “Doored”
“Dooring” or getting “doored” occurs when someone in a parked car opens a door on the driver’s side into the path of cyclists. The white lines of some bike lanes are marked so close to the parking lane that open doors can obstruct most or all of the bike lane. Despite the fact that the car is not moving, these incidents can cause extremely severe injuries. Running into a door is like crashing into a wall. It can knock the cyclist into the traffic lanes into the path of moving vehicles.
Avoid this injury by riding a door’s width to the left of the parked vehicles. This sometimes means that you need to “take the lane” and ride in front of cars.
Wear a Helmet
Wearing a helmet, especially when riding on roadways with cars, is common sense. Unless you are under age eighteen (18) on a class 3 electrical assisted bicycle, helmets are not required in Colorado. But in a legal case, it is a fact that can be used against you in a “failure to mitigate” argument to reduce your recovery for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages. The defense will argue that by not wearing a helmet, the cyclist failed to take a simple, inexpensive protective measure.
We’ve handled several cases for cyclists (and motorcyclists) who were not wearing helmets, and we know how to combat those arguments. But for your own safety, it is wise to wear a helmet when riding on the road with motor vehicles.
Bicycling Manual, Colorado Department of Transportation, available here
Confident Cycling Skills for Commuters, Bicycle Colorado, available here
Bike Maps and Resources (truly a wealth of information), Bicycle Colorado, available here