Attorney Bob Mionske offers a broad but detailed overview of cyclists’ rights and responsibilities in Bicycling & The Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist (2007). This is an essential read for any road user interested in a legal perspective on our rights and responsibilities, but it is also the historical perspective – the evolution of the law – that might surprise some cyclists. We cyclists may take for granted our right to ride, but that right is expressed nowhere in our nation’s founding documents because Constitutional framers did not explicitly accord the right to free movement.
“The cyclists of the late nineteenth century, though small in number, won the right to the road through their sheer determination. Over a century later, that right is violated with impunity at every turn. It is up to the cyclist of the early twenty-first century – - more numerous and no less determined than our cycling forebears – to take up the torch of liberty and secure that hard-won right.” Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist (p. 347)
In fact it has been hard-won though a series of court decisions and we continue to fight to protect it – often state by state as Congress has passed no legislation that specifically safeguards the cyclist’s right to travel (much less establishes a protected class of vulnerable road users). Only now, for example, do we see mandated buffer zones (e.g., three feet) emerge onto the public agenda to by hook or by crook carve out a legal space for cyclists as distinct from other road users.
This comes more than a century after cyclists first emerged as an organized and formidable political bloc! One of the intriguing aspects of Bicycling & the Law is the historical context. Cyclist-writers like Jeff Mapes (Pedaling Revolution) undertake a fine-grained historical review, but Mionske is unique in grounding it in the evolution of the law.
Negligence and Due Care: Know These Concepts
The lesson to take away from Mionske is that in practice, contingencies shape our protection under the law. If you believe that you’re the cyclist ‘David’ up against the steel-sheathed ‘Goliath,’ he’s got some news for you: we’re saddled with the same responsibilities and liability as motorists. Just without the presumption of legitimacy and the insurance protection that motorists commonly enjoy.
Legal concepts like ‘due care’ and ‘negligence’ apply in bike collisions, Mionske reminds us, and we may find ourselves unexpectedly liable because we failed to take due care. We ran the stop sign or the red light, for example. This happens too often to count, but he cautions that each incident, should it contribute to a collision and injury, may erode our ability to collect for damages that we alone (as cyclists) are likely to suffer in a bike-car collision.
Perversely, cyclists then seem disproportionately at risk in terms of safety but also liability. While the motorist drives away literally without a scratch, we may be left with liability for our much more severe injuries. And we’ll have no collision coverage to pay for our injuries – or a scratch to that new sedan. For our own protection, we need to be cognizant of our responsibilities to pedestrians, drivers, and other cyclists, too, precisely because we have more on the line than do motorists.
Word to the wise, Mionske says in Bicycling & the Law: obey all laws and that means every stop sign! And I agree. Indeed a growing number of cyclists are cautioning riders to tame the more egregious behavior, which may not sit will with more adversarial activists who rightly complain that we often hear about our responsibilities while officials and enforcement largely gives motorists a pass on theirs.
Know Your Responsibilities on the Road
It’s one thing t trumpet our rights; it’s another to unwittingly surrender our claim to damages in a collision because we’ve forgotten how the road rules apply to us. Think back, say, to that last near-miss with a motorist where you might have been at fault. How would a jury evaluate your actions in the courtroom should your jury include few or no jurors with road riding experience?
If your road behavior is examined in court to establish liability in that collision, the judge or jury will apply the ‘reasonable person’ theory. That’s not a subjective evaluation; the hypothetical ‘reasonable person’ is the court’s way of applying an objective standard. How would you fare?
Bicycling & The Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist is well worth the read precisely because cyclists might expect some deference in the event of a bike-car collision, but that expectation would not be supported by statutes or case law. Mionske urges us to consider our obligations because we can be left holding some part of the liability when things go wrong – and that could mean the difference between a settlement that covers your injuries and one that doesn’t.
I picked up Bicycling & The Law because I wanted to learn more about city liability for road hazards like pavement irregularities and storm drains. Instead I learned much about the intricacies of the law as it applies to cyclists. I have a better appreciation of what I put on the line when I simply ride to the market. Pick up Bicycling & The Law if only to learn that your rights and responsibilities ain’t what they’re cracked up to be!
A follow-up post will look at specific road situations that cyclists face daily to identify our rights and responsibilities. The series will conclude with a look at the liability of local governments for failing to ensure safe conditions and review some reporting tools that can help us hold public agencies accountable for safe road conditions.
Read on: Part II Bicycling & The Law