Millions of Americans ride billions of miles each year on bicycles of every type and description. Some commute to and from work on a bicycle; others ride street bikes for exercise or competitively; while still others love the thrill of off-road riding. Approximately 540,000 bicyclists make visits to the emergency room each year. About 67,000 of them have head injuries, even though they may have been wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, and 27,000 suffer from conditions that are serious enough to require hospitalization. 43,000 bicyclists are injured or killed each year in bicycle-motor vehicle collisions. Only 8 percent of bicyclists ride the wrong way on a road, but this accounts for 25 percent of motor vehicle-bicycle accidents. Seventeen percent of accidents involve bicyclists who have run stop signs or red lights.
Bicyclist fatalities occur more frequently: (1) in urban areas (66 percent), (2) at non-intersection locations (67 percent), (3) between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. (30 percent), and (4) during the months of June, July, and August (36 percent). More than 90 percent of all bicycle-related fatalities involve a collision between the bike and a motor vehicle. In fact, the first documented car crash involved an automobile-bicycle collision in New York in 1896.
When a bicyclist gets into an accident with a motor vehicle, the bicyclist usually suffers severe injuries, if she is not killed. A 150-pound person is no match for a moving vehicle weighing several thousand pounds or more. If you survive such an accident, you may suffer broken bones, such as in your arms, legs, pelvis, or ribs, or severe internal injuries. You may even break your neck (quadriplegia) or your back (paraplegia). You may also suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when your head hits the pavement or other surface, even if you were wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. In addition, you may receive severe friction burns to your body by being dragged by the car. You could suffer from significant scarring or disfigurement.
Bicyclists are generally bound to follow the rules of the road the same as motor vehicles. The California Vehicle Code requires that a person riding a bicycle at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction must ride the bicycle as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, except: (1) when passing another bicyclist or vehicle, (2) when preparing to make a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway, (3) when it is unsafe to do so, or (4) when approaching a place where a right turn is permitted. Likewise, when the road has a bike lane, the bicyclist must ride in that lane subject to the exceptions to riding at the right-hand side of the road.
A bicycle rider or passenger must sit on a permanent and regular seat attached to the bike. Riding on the handlebars, for example, is prohibited. If a passenger is four years old or younger, or weighs 40 pounds or less, the seat must have proper restraints to keep the youngster in place and to protect him from the moving parts of the bicycle. Minors—persons under the age of 18—may not ride a bicycle, non-motorized scooter, or a skateboard, nor may they wear in-line or roller skates, upon a street or roadway or any bike path or trail, unless the minor is wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets appropriate standards. This includes young children who ride on a bicycle in a restraining seat that is attached to the bicycle or in a trailer towed by the bicycle.
A person may not drive a motor vehicle in a bike lane except: (1) to park where parking is permitted, (2) to enter or leave the roadway, or (3) to prepare for a turn within 200 feet from the intersection. A person may not stop, stand, sit, or loiter upon a bike path or trail if such action impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of bicyclists using the bike path or trail. When a bicyclist is traveling upon a one-way street with two or more marked traffic lanes, the bicyclist may ride as near the left-hand curb or roadway edge as is practicable. It is illegal to ride a bicycle upon a highway or sidewalk while the bicyclist is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The leading causes of motor vehicle-bicycle accidents involve the motor vehicle driver’s failure to use turn signals, see the bicyclist, or yield the right-of-way to the bicyclist when the motorist is making a turn at an intersection, onto a side street, or into a private driveway. Vehicle-bicycle accidents also commonly occur when the vehicle driver parallel parks on the side of the road and then swings the driver’s door open without first looking to see whether any bicyclists are approaching. Likewise, pulling into traffic without checking for oncoming bicyclists is another major cause of vehicle-bicycle accidents. Other causes of bicycle accidents include: (1) hazardous road conditions, such as potholes, sand, and gravel; (2) road construction; (3) jaywalking pedestrians; (4) defects in the design or manufacture of the bike or equipment (such as in the bike’s frame or helmet); or (5) faulty repairs by a repair shop.
If you or a loved one have been injured or a loved one was killed by a negligent driver or through other causes while riding a bicycle, it is critical that you don’t throw away or otherwise dispose of the bike; it may be a crucial piece of evidence. It can show how the accident happened, and the bicycle would also be needed if it is claimed that the bike was defective.
Many bicycle accidents occur at night, when the bicycle rider is not readily visible to the driver of a motor vehicle. When a person is riding a bicycle at night, the bicycle must be equipped with appropriate front and rear lights and reflectors that can be seen by oncoming vehicles or vehicles approaching from the rear or side. The California Vehicle Code requires that, when operating a bicycle in the darkness, the bicycle must be equipped with all of the following:
Bicycle riders who participate in races are usually required to sign an express waiver of release of liability stating that they will not sue the owners, operators, sponsors, or promoters of the race if they are injured in the race. Will these types of releases hold up in court? If the release was valid and effective, you won’t be able to sue the sponsors and others involved in putting on the race for your injuries. To be effective, a release must be a clear and unequivocal waiver of harm or death with specific reference to the defendant’s negligence. A contract of release from negligence must be in clear, explicit, and comprehensible language, free of ambiguity or obscurity. It must clearly inform the releasor, as an ordinary person untrained in the law, that he is releasing the other party from liability for the releasor’s personal injuries caused by the releasee’s negligence.
The words releasing the defendant from liability must not be disguised in complicated legalese, but must be written in simple, clear, and unambiguous language understandable to the ordinary lay person. The release must be drafted so as to clearly notify the releasor of the effect of signing the agreement. The release must not be contrary to “public policy,” which generally prohibits the defendant from releasing herself for conduct that constitutes aggravated or “gross” negligence, or intentional wrongful conduct.
Suppose that, instead of being injured, the person who signed the release is killed in the bike race. Does the release bar the rider’s heirs from recovering for their damages? Probably. When a person signs a valid release that would have barred a lawsuit against the wrongdoer had that person lived, the person’s survivors are similarly barred from bringing a wrongful death action if the risk that took the person’s life was encompassed by a legally viable release.