Bicycle vs. Car Accidents: Common Liability Issues

A look at "side of the road" rules and other factors that play a role in many traffic accidents between cars and bicycles.

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The unifying thread behind the most common causes of bicycle vs. car accidents is this: All states have what are called “side-of-the-road” rules, which require bicyclists to ride on the far right side of the road, or in a bike lane, if they are not moving as fast as auto traffic. So, bicyclists who are intent on obeying the law will follow these rules. But at the same time, bicyclists' adherence to "side-of-the-road" rules account for three of the most common types of road accidents involving bicyclists:

  • hitting the opening door of a parked car
  • being brushed by a passing car or truck, and
  • being struck by a motor vehicle turning right.

Fortunately, other laws combine with the side-of-the-road rules to help protect bicycle riders who share the streets with motor vehicles.

In general, a bicycle has as much right to the roadway as a motor vehicle. Unless a specific law (some of these are discussed below) directs otherwise, a cyclist may ride in the middle of a traffic lane and must be afforded the same rights of way as motor vehicles. If you're a bicyclist, you may need to remind an insurance adjuster about this more than once during the course of your claim negotiations.

The following are general descriptions of the several rules that, taken together, determine liability in roadway accidents between bicycles and motor vehicles.

'Side-of-Road' Laws and Bike Lanes

If a cyclist is not riding as fast as current motor vehicle traffic, the cyclist must ride as far to the right side of the road as possible. (On one-way streets, the cyclist may instead ride to the far left.) If a special bike lane is provided, usually on the far right of the roadway, a cyclist is required to use it.

 A bicyclist may leave the side of the road or the bike lane:

  • if the cyclist keeps up with moving traffic
  • if the lane is too narrow to share safely with passing cars
  • to make a left turn, or
  • to avoid debris or other hazards.

Since a cyclist is required by law to ride close to parked cars, and a person is not permitted to open a car door unless it is safe to do so, an ­accident caused by the opening of a parked car door is almost always entirely the fault of the door-opener. An exception might exist if there was no motor vehicle traffic at all, thus eliminating the need for the cyclist to stay to the right. In this circumstance, the motorist who opened the car door might argue that the cyclist had an opportunity to avoid the door and thus was at least partly responsible for the accident.

Space Given by Passing Motor Vehicles

Given that side-of-the-road rules force cyclists to share lanes with passing traffic, a companion rule ­requires motor vehicles to maintain a safe space while passing. Three feet is sometimes stated as a safe distance, though it is extremely difficult to be that precise when reconstructing an accident. The problem of sufficient passing space is ­particularly acute with trucks and buses, and with the ever-increasing number of enormous SUVs.

Because a bicyclist has as much right to the road as does a motorist, a motor vehicle coming up behind a cyclist has a responsibility not to pass unless and until it is safe to do so. The ­motorist may need to slow down and wait until there is enough space, or change lanes. Except for moving to the far right of the lane, it is not the cyclist’s duty to stop or otherwise get out of the motorist’s way.

If you're a bicyclist, following an accident in which you were bumped by a motorist passing in the same lane, an insurance adjuster might suggest that you were not as far to the right as you should have been. You may respond that it was the motorist’s duty to wait until it was safe to pass -- knocking you over was not an acceptable driving option. If the motor vehicle was any wider than an ­average car, you might also want to measure the width of the traffic lane, up to the line of parked vehicles, if any, where the accident occurred and determine the width of the vehicle that struck you. Measure the width of your bicycle at the handlebars (or wider, if you were bumped on a part of your body that extends out farther than the bars). If the extra width of the motor vehicle made passing you safely at that spot difficult, you have an even stronger argument that the ­vehicle had no right to attempt the pass at that point.

Right Turn Right-of-Way

One of the most ­common causes of bicycle accidents is collision with a car turning right. While making a right turn, a car passes through the path of a cyclist, whether the cyclist is traveling in a traffic lane or in a bike lane. Some of these accidents happen when a car passes a cyclist, then slows down while turning right, moving directly into the path of a bicyclist who has nowhere to turn. Or a ­motorist simply turns right directly into a cyclist without seeing, and often without looking for, the bike.

In either of these situations, the motorist is ­liable for the accident. One of the basic rules of the road is that a vehicle may not make a turn unless it is safe to do so. Because a cyclist has as much right to the road as a motor vehicle, and because side-of-the-road laws force cyclists to the right, a cyclist is entitled to continue straight through an intersection without yielding to a ­motorist turning right.

Getting More Information and Legal Help

For more tips on establishing liability after a bicycle vs. car accident -- and everything you need to know to handle your insurance claim or lawsuit -- get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

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