Here are some of the more common situations when bikes and cars meet at intersections.
Accidents at Stop Signs
The most frequent type of intersection collisions, representing 9.7% of all intersection accidents, occur at intersections where the cyclist has a stop sign and the motorist does not. After stopping at the stop sign, the cyclist then rides out into the intersection in front of a car that has the right-of-way. Absent other factors, the cyclist is at fault. Most of these accidents occur among riders younger than age 15, indicating that a young person's inability to accurately judge the distance and speed of approaching cars is the main factor in these accidents.
Second in frequency, representing 9.3% of all intersection accidents, is when the cyclist has the right-of-way on a street without a stop sign and the car approaches from a street that does have a stop sign. After stopping at the stop sign, the car then drives out into the intersection, in front of the cyclist who has the right-of-way. Absent other factors, the accident will be attributed to the driver. If, however, the cyclist is riding against traffic (as happens in 60% of these sorts of collisions), both the cyclist and the driver may be at fault.
The best way to avoid these accidents is to:
- maximize your visibility
- keep a proper lookout when approaching an intersection, and
- adjust your lane position to the left as you approach an intersection so that you are more visible to drivers.
Bike's Failure to Yield
Representing 7.1% of all intersection accidents, this is the third most frequent type of intersection accident. The cyclist stops at the intersection, which may be either controlled or uncontrolled, and then rides into the intersection without yielding -- perhaps because she didn't see the car or misjudged the car's distance or speed. Often, the cyclist is young. In these accidents the cyclist is usually at fault.
Car Turning Left: The "Left Cross"
In this accident, the motorist and bicyclist approach the intersection from opposite directions, and as they enter the intersection, the motorist turns left, colliding with the cyclist. Usually the motorist doesn't see the cyclist or misjudges the cyclist's speed. In most cases, the driver of the car will be liable to the cyclist.
The cyclist can take safety measures to reduce the risk of these accidents:
- maximize your visibility
- adjust your speed at the intersection so that you can brake quickly if necessary
- consider taking the entire lane through the intersection to increase your visibility to cars (the trade-off of this approach is that you may annoy motorists behind you), and
- don't attempt to cross the intersection by riding into the crosswalk from the sidewalk -- this makes it even more difficult for the motorist to see you.
Car Turning Right: The "Right Hook"
There are several ways that accidents can happen when cars make right turns at intersections.
- The car passes a bike as both approach an intersection, and then the car turns right at the intersection, cutting the cyclist off.
- The bike passes a slower car on the right, and the car makes a right turn into the bike.
- The car and bike are waiting at a light. The car turns right when the light changes, cutting off or perhaps hitting the bike.
In most of these situations, the car will be at fault. But again, regardless of fault, a cyclist can take measures to reduce the chance of such an accident.
- Keep a proper lookout -- use a mirror, and check your mirror as you approach the intersection.
- Be prepared to brake suddenly in case a car cuts you off.
- Adjust your lane position by riding closer to the car lane or taking the entire right lane as you cross the intersection.
- Consider crossing at the crosswalk -- but note that riding into the crosswalk from the sidewalk puts you at risk of being hit by both left and right-turning drivers, who won't be expecting a cyclist to suddenly enter the crosswalk. You can reduce your chances of being hit in the crosswalk by walking your bike across, as a pedestrian.
- Never pass a car on the right at intersections or driveways. Either slow down to match the pace of the car or take the lane and pass on the left.
- Avoid being in a car's blind spot while approaching from behind or while waiting at traffic lights.
- Use a "bicycle box" where available. (Portland, Oregon is beginning to experiment with these European innovations). These position cyclists ahead of other vehicles at intersections.
Why Liability Matters
The ultimate goal of safe cycling is to avoid accidents altogether. But cyclists who violate right-of-way rules also face another potential hardship -- if an accident results, they might be found at fault for the accident. This means if the motorist is hurt or the car is damaged, the cyclist will be responsible. And if the cyclist is hurt, he or she may not be able to recover for injuries, medical expenses, lost wages, or pain and suffering.
The "almost stop." One liability rule bears special mention. In some states, if the cyclist doesn't come to a complete stop at an intersection, the cyclist may be barred from any recovery, even if the motorist is mostly responsible for an accident. This may be true even if the cyclist came to an "almost stop". In order to preserve your rights, you must come to a complete stop when required to by law, although, contrary to popular misconception, you are not required to put a foot down to come to a complete stop.
For a complete discussion of almost every type of bike accident imaginable, including issues of liability and safety tips for avoiding them, get Bicycling & The Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist, by Bob Mionske (Velo Press).
To learn more about proving fault when bike accidents are caused by road hazards, including how to request the appropriate information from public entities, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). This easy-to-use guide also covers other common bike accidents, as well as motorcycle, car, and other accidents.
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