Bicycle Accidents and Determining Liability - Who's at Fault: The Cyclist or Driver?
by Alex Juel
*image courtesy of Salim Virji
* Note: The following article is provided as general info and will vary from state to state. I am a cyclist. I am not a lawyer and provide this information for entertainment purposes only. This information may not reflect the views of Andres & Berger, P.C.
Cycling is one of the most fun modes of travel, whether you're riding down to the corner store or commuting across town to work. It can also be dangerous, especially for beginning cyclists who decide to ride on the road.
Many cycling accidents and injuries are the cause of improper safety precautions or not being familiar with the rules of the road. Many can also be the fault of other vehicles or pedestrians. There are a lot of ways in which a cyclist can become involved in an accident, so continue reading more about possible scenarios in which an accident can occur and who may be held liable in each case.
Scenario #1 - Riding Against Traffic
Many bicycle accidents happen when the cyclist is riding against traffic. The first thing that bike riders need to realize is that in most states, a bicycle is considered a vehicle, therefore if you are riding your bike against traffic, you are breaking the law. Secondly, it's extremely dangerous for several reasons. When riding against traffic, you leave little time to maneuver away should a vehicle veer in your direction. It's also very dangerous should there be other cyclists riding with traffic in your direction.
If an accident is caused due to the cyclist riding against traffic, in almost all cases, the rider will be held liable for damages and injuries, just as a car owner driving the wrong way down the road would.
Scenario #2 - Pedestrian Accidents
Many of the accidents that occur between pedestrians and bicyclists are similar to those between bicyclists and vehicles. Pedestrians often don't realize how fast a bike can travel and sometimes run out in front of them to cross the street. This could result in the cyclist running into the pedestrian or to swerve into other dangers. When riding in highly populated areas, you should always be aware of pedestrians around you. In most busy cities, it's also against the law to ride on sidewalks, so be aware of these laws where you live.
Depending on the situation, it varies who is at fault should a pedestrian/cyclist accident happen. If the bicyclist is riding on the sidewalk or against traffic and hits a person, the cyclist is likely to be held liable for damages. The same goes if the cyclist is not obeying traffic laws or rides through a crosswalk and hits someone. On the other hand, if a pedestrian jay-walks across the street and the cyclist hits them, the pedestrian could have the burden of liability
Scenario #3 - Getting Hit By An Opening Car Door
Anyone riding their bike on busy downtown roads has at some point worried about a car door opening from a random parked car on the side of the road. This can cause serious injuries to the bike rider, especially if he is thrown into traffic. The best way to avoid this is by riding further left in the traffic lane, despite how annoyed motorists may be behind you.
In accidents like this, the driver (the person opening the car door) is usually held at fault. When a parked car opens their door into a travel lane, they are obstructing traffic. If another car hits it or if a bicyclist hits it, the owner of the parked car is liable and responsible for damages because the oncoming vehicle has the right of way.
Scenario #4 - Not Using Lights In The Dark
Many bicyclists have to commute early in the morning or ride home at night when it's dark, and don't realize that reflectors are often not enough for drivers on the road to see, especially because many drivers don't expect to see bicyclists on the road. Using bicycle lights on both the front and back of the bike can not only make you more visible to drivers on the road, but it will also help you see any road/trail hazards before you hit them.
The laws requiring bicyclist to have lights on their bikes vary from state to state. If a bicyclist is riding on the road without lights after sundown, they could be held liable should an accident happen, so whatever state you live in, it's generally recommended that you install lights on your bike for safety reasons.
Scenario #5 - Accidents With Cars
While helmets save lives everyday, a helmet can't prevent all injuries, especially when a cyclist is hit by a car. There are various scenarios that cyclists need to be aware of. One common example is when a car turns in an intersection and the driver doesn't see the rider next to them. This also happens a lot when cars turn into their driveways. In some cases, a cyclist may be riding behind a car when the car has to come to an abrupt stop, causing the rider to rear-end the car. Bicycle brakes often don't work as good as car brakes and reaction times are usually slower as well.
If a car hits a cyclist in this way, determining who is at fault varies. As mentioned previously, bicycles are considered vehicles and must obey the same traffic laws that drivers do. If a driver properly uses their turn signal in a reasonable amount of time before turning and the cyclist rides into the side of the car, the cyclist might be at fault. This situation varies based on circumstances and from state to state, so is best discussed with a local attorney.
In cases where a car rear ends another vehicle, the car in the back is held liable for not leaving a reasonable distance between cars in case of an abrupt stop, and the same rules apply to cyclists, so if a rider rear ends a car, they are at fault.
Scenario #6 - Road Hazards
Road hazards can consist of many things such as uneven roads, road grooves, potholes, sewer grates, railroad/lightrail tracks and more. Hitting any of these things can cause an accident so it's important to be on the lookout, especially when riding on public streets, as opposed to trails, where most hazards are cleaned up quickly.
If you are in an accident due to a road hazard and incur injury, road repair agencies could be held liable if the hazard is due to long-term wear or if the hazard has been known for a long period of time and was not repaired. In other cases, cyclists have the right to ride on a safe road. If sewer grate slots are perpendicular to the road, these are not safe conditions. The same goes for railway tracks that may have been abandoned and not covered up. At the very least, there needs to be signs warning cyclists of these dangers.
Scenario #7 - Bike Defects (loose bolts, cracked frame, faulty brakes)
We all hope that when we spend anywhere from $500 to upwards of several thousand dollars on our bikes that they are strong and sturdy and won't fall apart when going down the trail at 20 mph. Manufacturers do have safety measures in place to make sure their bikes are safe, but sometimes a faulty part might slip by or an unforeseen defect might not have been detected until it's in the hands of their customers. For this reason, when you buy a bike, always check to make sure that there hasn't been any recalls on the model you're interested in and if there has, that the defective part has been fixed. It's also extremely important to look for defects when purchasing a used bike. Look for loose bolts, faulty brakes or cracks in the frame or fork.
If a bike defect results in injury due to neglect on part of the manufacturer, the manufacturer or even the distributor could be held liable for selling a defective product. In cases of purchasing a used bike from a yard sale, pawn shop, bicycle shop or private party, the likelihood of recovering damages for injury is low, but if the seller sold you the bike with knowledge of the defect, they may be held liable for your accident.
Scenario #8 - One-Direction Stop Signs
In some intersections, one direction of traffic has a stop sign, while the other direction does not. In many bicycle accidents, the cyclist will ride out in front of the car coming from the side, not knowing that they don't have a stop sign. Or they might not be able to properly judge the distance and speed of the oncoming car.
If a cyclist is hit in this situation, most often she may be at fault. Even if the driver is speeding, it often doesn't matter because the driver has the right of way. These are some of the most common accidents, so be very careful at intersections. There are some occasions when both the cyclist and the driver are at fault in this scenario. If the driver has the stop sign and the cyclist does not, but the cyclist is riding against traffic and the driver hits the cyclists, both could be at-fault.
Scenario #9 - Breaking Speed Limits
Bicyclists have to obey speed limits too. It's not likely that you'll be able to get your bike up to as fast as the speed limit on most roads, but hitting 15mph to 25mph is easy for many advanced cyclists and there are plenty side streets and suburban roads that don't go faster than that. You should also know if there are any set speed limits on the public trails you ride. Many trails don't have speed limits on desolate stretches, but when they go through populated city parks, communities or in tunnels, the speed limits are often set at 12mph to 15mph. This not only protects other people on the trails, but you as well. Even if there aren't speed limit signs posted, try to be courteous of others.
If you are speeding on the roads, you can get a speeding ticket. Speed limits are put in place to prevent accidents. If you're speeding, you are also putting others at risk of injury and receiving liability for damages yourself. Whether you are speeding or not, if it's your fault for hitting someone on the streets or on a public trail, you will be at fault.
Safety Precautions To Protect Yourself
In most of these scenarios, the accident can be avoided by taking the proper safety precautions.
- Always wear a helmet
- Inspect your bike before every ride for defects or loose parts
- Remember the rules of the road
- Obey speed limits on trails and public roads
- Learn about liability (don't let drivers or police blame you if you aren't at fault)
- Maximize visibility (ride in the left area of the lane, wear reflective clothing)
- Be aware of your surroundings and look ahead in intersections
- Be prepared to brake at intersections
- Be wary of passing a car on the right at intersections
- Ride defensively
- Obey traffic signals and road signs
- Ride with traffic
- Never ride on busy public sidewalks
- Install front and rear bicycle lights if riding in the dark
- Perform regular bicycle maintenance
New Jersey Specific Resources