Personal Injury

Proving Fault in Bicycle-Versus-Car Accidents

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you ride a bicycle, you need to follow your state and local traffic laws regarding rules of the road and helmet use. Violation of these laws can hurt your case if you're injured in a traffic accident.

When a car or other motor vehicle is involved in a traffic accident with a bicycle, it's not always obvious who was at fault. Despite the size disparity of bicycles when compared to cars, and the physical vulnerability of a bicycle rider on the roads and highways, a motor vehicle driver isn't always to blame when a car-versus-bicycle collision occurs. If the driver or the bicyclist violated a state or local law in connection with the accident, that can have a big impact on any personal injury claim that's filed over the crash. Read on to learn more.

Traffic and Helmet Laws

There are two main types of laws that can affect liability in a car-versus-bike accident: traffic laws and helmet laws.

Traffic Laws

In most states, "Where to Ride" laws limit the rights of bicyclists on the roadway by requiring them to ride as close as practical to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. In turn, many states require motorists to pass bicyclists on the road at a safe distance under ‘Defined Distance’ or ‘Three-Foot Passing’ laws.

Most other "rules of the road" laid out in state vehicle codes apply equally to motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists, including the obligation to observe stop signs and traffic signals. So, if a car and a bicycle collide at a four-way stop sign, and an investigation shows that the bicyclist ran the stop sign and collided with the car, which had come to a complete stop and was beginning to accelerate into the intersection, chances are the bicycle driver will be unsuccessful in trying to pin any blame on the driver.

Violation of a traffic law is usually (but not always) a big factor in a liability finding. Learn more about traffic tickets and fault for accidents.

Bicycle Helmet Laws

Although there is currently no federal law governing the use of bicycle helmets, dozens of states have laws requiring them for children under the age of 18. And many cities and towns require use of bicycle helmets by both children and adults.

Many states limit the legal impact of failure to comply with mandatory helmet laws, especially for riders under 18. So, a child’s failure to wear a helmet may not necessarily be used as proof of "negligence" (more on this in the next section).

Negligence and Car-Versus-Bicycle Collisions

Fault for a collision between a bicycle and a car usually turns on the issue of negligence, which governs liability in most types of personal injury cases. Keep in mind that car-versus-bicycle collision cases are fact specific, and proving or disproving negligence may require eyewitness testimony, police reports, or other evidence.

But if either the vehicle driver or the bicyclist was speeding, running a stop sign or traffic light, or improperly changing lanes in violation of state motor vehicle laws, and that violation was a direct cause of the collision, then the other party might be able to argue that the traffic violation amounted to negligence per se. The violating driver/bicyclist can try to prove that his/her actions did not cause the other party's losses, but it's probably going to be an uphill battle.

Comparative and Contributory Negligence

When a bicyclist is injured in an accident with a car, it's fairly common for the driver to argue that the bicyclist shares some amount of fault for the crash. The impact of an injured bicyclist's shared blame for the underlying accident depends on the law in the jurisdiction in which the personal injury lawsuit is filed.

If the case is filed in a comparative negligence state, any compensation the bicyclist receives at trial will likely be reduced by an amount that's equal to the bicyclist's share of fault. For example, if the jury finds that the bicyclist's damages add up to $50,000, but that the bicyclist was also 20 percent to blame for the accident, the damages award will be reduced to $40,000 (that's $50,000 minus 20 percent).

The result will be much more harsh if the lawsuit takes place in one of the handful of states that follow the contributory negligence rule in personal injury lawsuits. In those states, any fault on the part of the bicyclist will negate any financial recovery, leaving the bicyclist with nothing.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2016 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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