Right hooks and dooring: Cyclists confront numerous road enemies
Those who've recently visited New York, or most major American cities, have probably seen the blue or green bicycles for rent parked at racks on the street. It's just one indication of how quickly cycling is growing not only as a sport, but also as a way to commute to work or to get around town.
The push for cycling encourages commuters to abandon their cars and use their lung and leg power. But they also have to use their brain.
Cycling is the most dangerous major sport, causing nearly double the number of head injuriesas football, according to the American Association for Neurological Surgeons. The potential for serious injury, and death, raises new questions about the role insurance plays.
When accidents happen
The traditional car accident follows a well-known ritual. In a fender-bender, the drivers get out of their cars, exchange information and call their insurance companies. For a more serious accident, someone at the scene calls the police. They dispatch an ambulance, if necessary, and when police arrive on the scene they write up the report that is instrumental in establishing what happened.
Cycling accidents can be more chaotic, not only in deciding who is liable, but equally important, who does or doesn't have insurance coverage.
"There's a lack of understanding on both sides of these accidents," says Joshua Zisson, a Boston lawyer and one of many "cycling attorneys" who represent cyclists and often are bike enthusiasts themselves.
'Right hooks and dooring'
Imagine a driver making a right turn. He or she may have to cross a bike lane in front of a cyclist, who could slam into the vehicle's rear bumper. The driver may keep on going, often unaware that the biker is injured. Is the cyclist responsible for hitting the car or did the motorist make an illegal turn? This depends on the state, and sometimes the city, where the accident occurred.
Or say a taxicab's passenger door opens suddenly. With no time to react, a cyclist is thrown off the bike and over the door. The cab pulls out, the passenger walks away and the biker, "riding on adrenalin," pedals on, unaware until the next day of a broken wrist and neck pain. By then it's too late to find either the passenger or the taxicab.
Cyclists call these two most common city accidents the "right hook" and "dooring." Most of the fatal bike collisions in New York City occur at or near intersections, according to the state's department of transportation, while a Boston study shows that dooring causes 22 percent of all auto/bicycle collisions.
Safety in numbers
Despite well-founded fears, more and more people are cycling, both for sport and commuting. The number of people who ride bikes is more than those who ski, golf and play tennis combined, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
Before you ride, know your rights: They vary depending on the state in which you bike and whether you live in a rural, suburban or urban area. There's often safety in numbers. Motorists tend to look out for bikers when they are used to sharing the road with them, thanks in part to an influential "biker's lobby," which works to obtain motor vehicle laws favorable to cyclists.
The Northeast and West Coast seem to side with cyclists, as do cities like Boston. Zisson publishes a "Massachusetts Bicyclist's Bill of Rights," which he plans to expand to other areas. In the Bay State, it's illegal to right hook or door a biker, he says.
Insurance for bicycle accidents
Even with the growth of cycling in the United States, it's still not as popular as in Europe, where in cities like Amsterdam more people bike than drive and cycling insurance is available. Since there's no universal cycling insurance here, says website BicycleLaw.com, cyclists must "piece together coverage from other policies."
For instance, if your $2,000 racing bike is stolen, refer to your own policies to find out if the loss is covered under your homeowners or auto insurance. Note that a theft insurance claim requires a police report and your deductible.
If you as a cyclist hit a pedestrian, your homeowner's liability may cover you, up to your policy limits, says Loretta Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. Your insurer may also defend you in the event of a lawsuit.
As the victim of a car-versus-bicycle accident, you can make a claim for bike damage against the car driver's liability insurance or under the collision portion of your auto insurance policy - although a collision claim would be reduced by the amount of your deductible, so a collision claim might not be worth it
Your injuries could be covered under your own Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage, if you reside in a state in which it is offered. A PIP claim can include lost wages and child care expenses.
If you sue the driver, you may quickly exhaust his or her insurance coverage. They're still on the hook for your damages, but if you're suing someone without much income or assets, you may not see a pay day. When suing someone else, you can also ask for pain and suffering, which is covered by a liability policy.
"Any collision serious enough to send you to the hospital will quickly run over the policy limits," warns attorney Bob Mionske on BicycleLaw.com.
Or you could use your health insurance for injuries.
Tips for bicycle accidents
Here are some tips if you are involved in a bicycle accident:
- Always wait for police to arrive. Carry and use your cell phone to contact police if the driver threatens to leave.
- Don't leave the scene until you're told that a police report will be filed, especially if you're injured. Seek prompt medical attention and keep all paperwork, photos and X-rays.
- Never talk to the driver's insurance company before you speak to your own insurance company or lawyer. Remember that the other insurance company is gathering information against you.
- Don't be intimidated if you weren't wearing a helmet when the accident happened. Helmets are useful against head injuries and often given out by police, but they may not be required by law and aren't usually deemed material to a case.
The good news for cyclists: They continually get more rights. Most cases are settled before they go to court, usually because cyclists get more sympathy than the driver of the car, bus or truck with which they collide.
The bad news: The monetary settlement may not properly compensate for the pain or disability you sustain.
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