The first step towards a better understanding of bicycle accidents is not calling them “accidents.”
Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first started considering the difference in 1997, and NHTSA employees no longer talk about car “accidents” in speeches and literature. Instead, they use terms like “collision,” “crash,” and “wreck” to convey the idea that traffic collisions in general, and bicycle collisions in particular, are “predictable results of the laws of physics” as opposed to “an unavoidable part of life.”
Several other entities within the Department of Transportation, including the Research and Special Programs Administration and the Federal Highway Administration are also phasing out the a-word.
Bicycle Laws in California
Most safety advocates agree that separate bicycle lanes separated from vehicle traffic by large rubber or concrete dividers are the best way to prevent bicycle-vehicle crashes. This is especially true in car-centric Southern California where there is less bicycle traffic than in other Left Coast cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, since there is safety in numbers. But for both political reasons (many people consider designated bike lanes to be an “eyesore”) and economic reasons (designated bike lanes cost several million dollars per mile), “such barriers are almost nonexistent in many areas of SoCal,” according to John Rapillo, a personal injury attorney in Orange County, CA.
The three-foot law is basically a compromise. Rather than create physical barriers that irritate many taxpayers and strain budgets that have already been trimmed almost to the bone, lawmakers tried to create virtual barriers that give bicycle riders a cushion of safety when they must share the road with motorized vehicles. The new Vehicle Code 21760 requires motorists to overtake or pass bicycles “at a safe distance that does not interfere with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle, having due regard for the size and speed of the motor vehicle and the bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and the surface and width of the highway;” three feet is presumed to be such a cushion. Violation of the three-foot law is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $220, which raises the possibility of the negligence per se shortcut, a concept that’s explained below.
Relatively speaking, California also has a rather broad bicycle helmet law that requires any cyclists under 18 to wear protective headgear. As a rule, bicycle helmets are rather thin, so they provide excellent protection if the rider loses balance and falls over or if the rider collides with a curb or similar fixed object. However, in high-speed collisions, riders are normally thrown off their bikes, and the thin helmets provide little protection. The helmet law sometimes gives insurance companies a basis to claim contributory negligence, as outlined below.
In most negligence cases, victim/plaintiffs must prove five elements to obtain compensation for their injuries. But if the tortfeasor (negligent driver) broke a safety law, like the three-foot law, victim/plaintiffs only need to establish cause, because of the negligence per se (negligence “as such”) rule. Furthermore, in addition to compensatory damages for economic and noneconomic losses, jurors frequently award punitive damages in negligence per se cases, because of the tortfeasors’ often egregious conduct.
On the other side, if riders under 18 do not wear helmets and they suffer head injuries in crashes, the insurance company normally invokes the contributory negligence rule to decrease the amount of compensation they receive. This rule also applies if the victim was partly responsible for the crash, perhaps by doing something like riding through a stop sign. Under California law, the judge apportions damages strictly according to the percentage of fault, so if the jury divides liability 50-50, the victim receives half the damages requested.