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frequently asked question about bicycle riders called cyclists colliding with automobiles

Risks of bicycle riding on a highway?

Riding a bicycle on a highway?

Bicycling is one of the fastest-growing modes of transportation in America. However, as more people hit the roads on two wheels, they encounter more drivers on four wheels. Not all those encounters end well for the cyclist. One study cited in Outside magazine stated that fatalities in bike vs. auto accidents rose 35% between 2010 and 2016.

Many of the risks of riding a bicycle on the highway are due to distracted drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that on any day, as many as 600,000 drivers are using cell phones while driving. Since drivers aren’t looking out for cyclists, bike riders need to take care and look out for themselves.

Basics About Accidents

Crash avoidance and prevention are the first two things a cyclist can do to protect themselves. Wear a helmet and protective gear whenever you’re out riding. Most states don’t have helmet laws for anyone over 18, but smart riders wear one anyway. The most common cause of bicycle injuries is not car accidents but falls; helmets and pads can prevent serious injuries.

Other basic precautions to keep in mind when you set out:

  • Fatalities are highest in the summer, peaking between June and September. More recreational cyclists are out, as are more vacationing drivers who may be lost or distracted by the sights.
  • Up to three-quarters of all fatalities occur in cities and urban areas. More crowded roads and a lack of bike lanes put bikes and cars in tighter proximity, and cyclists often have to ride between rows of parked cars.
  • The increasing size and height of safer passenger vehicles means the drivers have a harder time seeing bicycles and motorcycles. Larger headrests, smaller rear windows, and raised body clearance mean low-profile bikes when parked next to a car at a stoplight.

Specific Hazards for Bicycle Riders

There are some places where bicycle riders are especially vulnerable to road traffic. It would be ideal if cities and highways were designed for cycle traffic. Still, our modern culture is vehicle-oriented and very slowly coming to recognize the benefit of bicycles and electric scooters.

These areas are particularly dangerous if you use a bike for work, exercise, or pleasure. Pay extra attention and remember that drivers often aren’t looking out for you.

Night and Bad Weather

Cars often run into other cars in poor visibility, and they’re far more likely to hit bicycles under the same conditions. Many states have laws requiring at least a rear reflector on bicycles, and a front headlamp visible from 500 feet. If you ride after dark, check your state and city rules about lights and reflectors. If you’re in an accident, you may be cited for failing to have the proper equipment.

Increase your safety by wearing a safety vest and reflective tape on your helmet as well as the legally required reflectors.

Turns

Turns are the most hazardous places for bicycles to be. In general, drivers are looking in the direction opposite to the turn — if they are turning left, they’re looking right, and vice versa. This is so the driver can see the merging traffic. Bicycles going the same direction are easy to overlook.

  • Left turns: If you must turn from the center or left-turn lane, position yourself so that you take up the entire lane. Don’t let another vehicle occupy the same lane as you. Do not pull forward into the intersection as if you were in a car. 
  • Right turns: Be alert for cars making turns against the light. If possible, use the sidewalk. Do not sit in the turn lane waiting for the light to change.

Wherever possible, use crosswalks for turns and use the signal. A study in Britain found a surprising gender-related difference in traffic fatalities: Male cyclists tended to cross on red lights to get ahead of traffic. Female cyclists waited for the green. Drivers turning on the signal were apt to hit the law-abiding cyclists. This isn’t a go-ahead to break the law, but it does mean cyclists should pay attention to traffic in intersections.

Doors and Exiting Vehicles

“Door-popping” or deliberately opening car doors to cause bicyclists to swerve into traffic is a real phenomenon in cities. Unfortunately, it is not yet a criminal act. Some drivers simply open their doors without looking, resulting in collisions with bicycles or other vehicles.

Keep your eyes open and watch for signs like brake lights as drivers put their cars in park, or doors partially opening.

In the same vein, cars leaving parking spaces and pulling into traffic may not see cyclists. Drivers don’t have to be distracted at this moment. Drivers often look over their shoulders rather than into their side mirrors, and are looking for cars, not bicycles. Again, have a bright forward light, and be prepared to stop quickly.

Road Conditions

The same road conditions that cause vehicle accidents cause bicycle accidents. Potholes, storm drains and grates, and road debris may cause you to swerve into oncoming traffic. If city laws allow you to ride on sidewalks, you should do so. If you must ride in the street, remember that bike lanes are not always as well-maintained as the main roads. 

Do not ride through construction zones. Bicycle tires aren’t designed for broken pavement or hot asphalt. The same difficulties cars have seeing bicycles are multiplied by 10 for heavy equipment drivers, and they won’t be expecting a cyclist in their zone.

If You Need Legal Help

If you’re involved in a car-versus-bike accident, the first thing to do is get medical care. Even a glancing blow from a car can leave you with serious injuries. If you can get the driver’s information, you should do so. Try to get insurance information, but definitely get the driver’s name and license plate number.

You should contact a personal injury attorney right away. Look for one who knows about bicycle-related accidents. They should be familiar with the bike laws in your state and in your city. City and state laws may differ from one another, so choose your attorney wisely.

Sources:

NHTSA “Bicycle Safety” https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/bicycle-safety

Harvard Gazette “Is Cycling Safe?” https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2023/01/is-cycling-safe-in-many-cases-the-answer-is-no/

DMV California “Safety Tips for Bicyclists and Motorists” https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/driver-education-and-safety/educational-materials/fast-facts/sharing-the-road-ffdl-37/

Outdoor Magazine “Is Road Riding Worth the Risk?” https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-gear/bikes-and-biking/adventure-e-bikes/

Morris & Dewett provides this information to the public for general education and interest. The firm does not represent clients in every topic discussed in answers to frequent questions. The information is curated and produced based on questions commonly asked or search terms commonly used. Every effort is made to provide accurate information. Do not make any decision solely based on the information provided, please seek relevant counsel for each topic area. Consult an attorney before making any legal decision, consult a doctor before making any medical decision, and consult a financial advisor before making any fiscal decision. Information provided is not legal advice. If you have any legal needs, please do not hesitate to contact us. We are pleased to assist you.

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