Helping Police To Become Better Versed In Bicycle Laws

In Washington, D.C. the District’s Police Complaints Board recently presented a report which concluded that the police needed to be better versed in the bicycle laws they enforce. In collisions between cars and bicycles, police are sometimes confused about who is at fault. Too often, they misapply a law and cite a cyclist due to misapprehension of how the laws apply to bicycles.

Frequently, police cite cyclists for getting doored, even though the cyclist has broken no law. Other common citations include illegal passing, hazardous driving, or riding abreast, which are misapplied when the cyclist is in the right. “Riding abreast,” some officers believe, refers to a bicycle riding next to a car, instead of two cyclists riding side by side. As a result, they have ticketed cyclists for colliding with a right-turning car by using the “riding abreast” law.

One of the biggest problems with police improperly citing cyclists is that a cyclist may not be able to receive compensation for injuries suffered in the accident. Whether injuries are covered under these circumstances will vary by state. Some states have no fault laws whereby injuries incurred in an auto accident are covered no matter who is at fault. Even in those states, the cyclist will have to endure the hassle of dealing with a citation received in error.

Among the complaint board’s recommendations was that police delay filing the accident report until the cyclist has been interviewed. In many car on bicycle accidents, only the driver has an opportunity to make a statement. Sometimes this happens due to police bias, and other times it’s because the cyclist leaves the scene in an ambulance before he or she can make a statement.

In some cities, police do delay making the report until speaking with the cyclist. If a cyclist is hospitalized, a police officer may come to the hospital to take a statement. In such cases, the cyclist has the right to refuse to speak to the police officer until he or she is well enough to give a coherent statement. Instead of talking to the officer at that time, the cyclist might suggest visiting the police station after being discharged from the hospital.

Other recommendations by the complaint board included revision of accident report forms to provide more accurate options and additional training and testing of officers on bicycle laws. The goal is to have the police department change the way it investigates car on bicycle collisions to protect injured cyclists.

In addition to these changes designed to protect cyclists’ rights, the D.C. Council is considering a measure that has won approval in other cities. The purpose of the bill is:

“To create a civil cause of action for a person who while riding a bicycle is the victim of an intentional assault, injury, or harassment or the threat of assault, injury, or harassment, and to provide for civil penalties, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.”

The bill received a lot of attention after an incident in August where a cyclist was harassed by the driver of a truck who deliberately struck him. The harassment incident was recorded by the cyclist using a helmet-camera.



The police located the driver of the vehicle and completed the reports necessary to file charges. However, despite having video evidence documenting the assault and a witness who stated that the collision with the cyclist was intentional, no assault charges will be brought against the driver – all the more reason to pass a law giving cyclists civil recourse against aggressive drivers.

The law will help injured cyclists, but so would educating cyclists. Some cyclists didn’t understand the context of this video. They believed that the cyclist could have done something to avoid getting hit. This recurrent theme is heard from cyclists after another cyclist gets hit by a car. It may be a defense reaction, a function of trying to convince themselves of their own ability to avoid such an accident.


September 28, 2011 at 5:27 pm

I commute to work from Brooklyn (NY) to Manhattan everyday. I have to say, when I saw the title of this post about vehicular assault, I was expecting something different. I don’t know, maybe I’m just used to the tight confines of the busy streets and avenues here. I would definitely call this reckless driving and/or leaving the scene of an accident, but vehicular assault? I think that’s inconclusive. Look at the lane markers, the driver didn’t swerve into the cyclist’s path of travel after passing him. He was straddling the dotted line and continued to while and after passing the cyclist. I have drivers swerve or pull out of intersections in front of me on a weekly basis and I leave myself enough space to adjust. That said, I do hope that the cyclist will rip this guy’s f%&king lungs out in civil court. Anyway, this is just one cyclist’s opinion, so flame on, everyone.”


An older gentleman, claiming to be a cyclist, rehashed the usual drivers’ myth about drivers paying “road taxes” while cyclists don’t. He also perceived the harassed cyclist as “inconsiderate,” possibly because he was taking the lane.


September 29, 2011 at 7:33 am

Thus we see a marginalized, tiny minority seeking specific protections… as a “defined class,” … from abuse by an entrenched, powerful majority. Additionally, the majority pays the taxes that provide the roadways used by the minority, which pays no taxes.

The minority member offended the obviously-arrogant majority member by infringing into the majority-member’s space. I watched the tape, and I thought the minority member’s behavior was reasonable, though not at all considerate of the majority-member’s rights to the roadway.

I have 50 years of bicycling under my belt, and have been abused only once by a motorist… a laughing, malicious young white male who deliberately tried to splash mud on me inside a city park, using his shiny pickup truck. The only thing I did to provoke this was to simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time… I was on a small bypass bridge along a depression in the vehicular roadway. Otherwise, I try to think of the other guy, as well as myself… sort of the way one of the two Great Commandments instructs us.

Accordingly, I encourage polite consideration of all those pig-headed drivers of showy pickup trucks out there, until some sort of “bicyclists’ civil rights act” is passed… maybe in the next century.

Yess’r boss, I do.

Disclosure: I am a gray-haired white male”


Another supposed cyclist sided with the authorities. In his view, the truck hasn’t assaulted anyone. He doesn’t even believe that the truck struck the bicycle. Apparently, he missed the part about the eyewitness who stated that the truck “hit the bicycle intentionally.”


September 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I cycle to work every day, so I am very aware of the unsafe way that many DC drivers act around cyclists. But frankly, I’m with the authorities here. There is nothing in this video which proves an assault. The video doesn’t even show evidence that that the truck and bike made contact. Yelling at a cyclist is not a crime or a tort. If the cyclist has more evidence then he should hire an attorney and sue for battery (not assault; battery is offensive contact, assault is just an attempted battery). But the truck driver is going to claim that the cyclist was negligent by being too far to the left and filming instead of paying full attention to the road. If the cyclist can prove intent, he will get battery. If he can’t prove intent (which is difficult to do), then must prove that his own negligence did not contribute to the injury. In a DC negligence action, if the victim is even 1% at fault for the injury, he will lose.”


The widespread ignorance of bicycle laws and safe cycling practices — among cyclists, drivers, and police — may encourage bias in favor of drivers when it comes to filing criminal charges, regardless of the degree of harm to the cyclist.

Under current D.C. law, whenever a cyclist’s injuries are not severe, the damages are not enough for a lawyer to bring civil suit. The proposed law will make it easier for cyclists to gain access to civil remedies. In the meantime, education of all parties involved is the only way to achieve fair enforcement of the laws and to see justice done when cyclists are assaulted or injured by reckless or careless drivers.

This entry was posted in Cycling and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *