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Bicycling accidents: when police ignore the law

Posted on May 19th, 2016

Throughout the winter, I had the pleasure of riding in pre-work group bike rides. This entails many layers of clothing, thick gloves, and lights on both the front and back of our bicycles. One cold morning, while riding up a hill, we passed a car in the dark. The driver was sitting at a green light looking at her phone. As the five of us rode past on our bicycles, we gave her quite a startle.

I will acknowledge that motorists on dark winter mornings do not expect cyclists. As she drove past us further up the hill two things were obvious. First, she was upset and unhappy with our presence and second, she was still busy on her cell phone.

As we crested the hill and rounded the corner, we were pulled over by several local police officers. They immediately began telling us that they had had numerous complaints about us driving in a dangerous fashion. At 47 years old and with almost a decade of serious biking experience, I am both the youngest and least experienced of my group. These are seasoned and enthusiastic cyclists.

We quickly and calmly explained to the police officers that we are allowed to be riding on the roads. The officers countered that it is dangerous for us to be riding in the dark. We again calmly explained that we have lights both on the front and the back and we are allowed to be on the road. The officers seemed to reluctantly acknowledge this. As they got closer and could see us, they realized that we were not kids or a bunch of hooligans. Their tone softened. They restated their claim of several complaints. We then calmly explained to the officer that there was a woman who was stopped in the middle of the street and on her cell phone and seemed to be alarmed by our presence. We stated to the officers that we did nothing except for passing her as she was sitting at a green light on her cell phone. We did not ask about the other reports, and they offered no other.

As criminal defense and plaintiff personal injury lawyer as well as an active road cyclist, I am very familiar with the challenges facing cyclists. Cyclists on the road are minorities and sadly, when dealing with the law, minorities have the odds stacked against them and are presumed guilty. As was obvious in our encounter, police automatically and instinctively take the side of the motorist. As happens too often, police jump to conclusions and take the side of the non-minority, giving them all the benefits and presumptions.

In this country, riding a bicycle on the road is still something that people think is dangerous and foolish. As a criminal defense attorney, I understand that police do not always understand or follow the laws the way that they should. The law in Pennsylvania is that cyclists can ride two abreast (Pa C.S. 75 §3505) and motorists need to give 4 feet of clearance when passing a cyclist (Statute 75 Pa.C.S. § 3303). No one aside from maybe half of the people riding bicycles on the street, understand this law. Share the road actually does mean share the road.

Share the road does not mean share the road unless motorists would like to use it.

So what should you do if you are hit by a car and the police get it wrong?

  • If you are able, take pictures.
  • If you are able, get names, phone numbers, and addresses of all the witnesses.
  • Insist that the police take your statement and write it down correctly. This may be difficult, as police do not always respond well to directives from non-police.
  • Insist the police take pictures of the accident and the damage.
  • Contact a lawyer to make sure that the police report is written correctly and that your rights are protected.

Bicycling Magazine recently printed an article entitled Bike Accidents: Blaming the Victim and subtitled “When Sussing out Blame at the Scene of Bike Accidents Most Police Officers are Motorists and Many see the World From That Perspective.” The article discusses how officers will make assumptions contrary to the law and side with angry motorists. As stated in the article “to change this we need to stand up and speak out for our rights. Keep cool, gather facts, write to the officer’s superiors and get your local bike advocacy groups involved.”

As a committed cyclist and passionate attorney, R. Emmett Madden welcomes the opportunity to stand up for cyclists against motorists, police officers, or any other obstacles to keeping us safe on the roads.