Seattle bike attorney Bob Anderton doesn’t want your business, Capitol Hill.
But with just under 10 percent of its residents reporting that they commute by bike, it’s not surprising that Anderton’s firm, Washington Bike Law, takes a lot of calls from the neighborhood’s cyclists.
Anderton believes that drivers should be presumed to be at fault whenever they hit a bicyclist or pedestrian – it just makes sense to put the bulk of responsibility on those who can inflict the greatest pain and suffering. But the unfortunate reality is that, under current state and local laws, if you do get hit, not only will you have to contend with injuries, you may also face an uphill battle trying to prove it wasn’t your fault.
So, here are few tips in advance of Bike Everywhere Month — things that people riding bikes as well as driving cars can do that may help you avoid some of the most common types of collisions.
Dooring is when someone — driver or passenger — opens the door of a motor vehicle into oncoming traffic. Both the Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) and Revised Code of Washington (RCW) prohibit opening a door into oncoming traffic “unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so.”
So, don’t ride in the door zone unless you have to. Of course, that is easier said than done: cyclists are allowed to take the full general lane, but even if you’re keeping up with the flow of traffic, or riding just a little slower than people are driving, you’re probably going to get honked at, or maybe even punishment passed.
“We had one client who had what seemed like a really good theory,” Anderton says. “She would ride close to parked cars, but she would always look inside to make sure that nobody was going to open a door. She ended up getting doored by a woman who was crouched down in her seat to grab her bag and who threw her door open while she was still crouched down. Nothing is fool-proof, even if you aren’t a fool.”
If you drive — or ride — in car: The most recent update to Washington State Department of Licensing now recommends opening a car door using a really simple technique called the Dutch Reach.
A left hook is when an oncoming driver turns in front of traffic that is traveling straight. The law says that left-turning drivers (including bicyclists) have a duty to yield to all oncoming traffic. “Liability for left hooks is usually pretty easy to prove,” Anderton explains. “But, the point of impact between the vehicles can strengthen or weaken a case. If you hit the back of a car that turned in front of you, you arguably had more time to react than if the front of the car hits you. If it’s night and you are not using a light, then arguably the driver may have had good reason not to see you.”
If you drive: Left hooks typically happen at higher speeds, and result in more severe injuries. Be especially vigilant about looking for people walking or riding bikes before making your turn.
A right hookis when a driver turning right strikes a bicyclist who is continuing forward. Turning traffic must yield to traffic traveling straight, even if you are going in the same direction. And, SMC prohibits drivers from driving in the bike lane unless they are turning or parking. But there are a lot of variables and different laws that can come into play here.
Liability is usually pretty clear if the driver passes a person riding a bike and cuts them off. It is less clear when traffic is backed up and a bicyclist is riding on the right side of the lane passing cars. prohibits drivers from driving in the bike laneSMC specifically allows bicyclists to pass on the right when it is safe to do so. That last bit “when it is safe to do so” allows drivers (or their insurance companies) to assert that, since they hit you, it wasn’t safe to pass.
If you drive: “Many of the right hooks we’ve seen are because drivers who want to be good Seattlites and stay out of the bike lane until the last minute,” Anderton says. “What drivers should actually do, counterintuitively, is drive in the bike lane for the last half block or so. You have time to look and make sure nobody is there.” Ultimately, slowing down and looking for someone on a bicycles – as well as pedestrians and anyone rolling around town – is going be a lot less stressful than hitting someone, regardless of who is ultimately found liable.
The “when it’s safe to do so” example is just one of many illustrating that the law – even when it ostensibly favors them – is not always friendly for people on bikes. “People always ask, ‘Can I sue for this?’” Anderton says. “Sure, you can, but it might not be a good suit. ‘Can I get a ticket for this?’ Sure, but it might not be a legitimate ticket. You can always make an insurance claim or fight a ticket, but you can’t undo getting in a crash and what you want is to not be in a crash.”
“And you need to use your own judgement, not the law. Because the law sometimes says dumb things. So if you are entitled to do something or even you are not permitted to do something, protect yourself if you can. The first rule of the road is: don’t hurt yourself.”
Washington Bike Law hosts its first Happy Hour on April 18 at Optimism Brewing. The bike lawyers will talk tips for defensive bicycle riding and safer driving, what to do if you witness or are a victim of a crash, and the basics of liability and insurance.
Don’t Door Me! Image by Stephen Schildbach