Especially in larger cities, bicyclists and motorists tend to be pretty wary of one another on the streets and highways. Sometimes the bicyclist-driver relationship is even tinged with antagonism, with motorists annoyed that some bicyclists ignore traffic laws, and bicyclists resenting some motorists' unwillingness to share the road. Regardless of preconceptions (let alone misconceptions), drivers and bicyclists can both be legally liable for causing or contributing to a traffic accident.
A bicyclist is in a unique position on the road, operating a bare-bones vehicle under his or her own power, often around much larger and faster vehicles. But at the same time, bicyclists must follow most of the same rules of the road as other vehicle operators. This means bicyclists must avoid making unsafe lane changes, yield to pedestrians, stay off the sidewalks and obey all traffic signs and signals (usually).
If a bicyclist violates a traffic law, and that violation causes an accident, the bicyclist can certainly be held liable for injuries and other losses incurred by anyone else who was involved in the crash. (Learn more about what to do after a bicycle accident.)
As with most other kinds of accidents, fault for a bicycle-versus-car accident is typically based on the legal concept of negligence. Simply put, anyone operating a vehicle on the road owes a duty of reasonable care to others using the road. The failure to act with reasonable care (violating a traffic law, for example) amounts to negligence if someone is injured as a result.
So, if there's a bicycle-car accident at an intersection, a traffic violation by anyone involved in the crash (running a red light, rolling through a stop sign) will likely be the critical factor in a fault determination (with the violating driver or cyclist being deemed negligent). Learn more about negligence and fault for an accident.
Besides using the concept of negligence as the yardstick for assessing fault for a bicycle-versus-car accident, all states follow some version of shared fault rules, which can affect how personal injury damages are assessed.
Under the shared fault rule of contributory negligence, if an individual is responsible for causing the accident in any way, they cannot recover for their injuries or damages in a personal injury lawsuit. This means that a bicyclist (or anyone else) who is only 1% responsible for causing the accident cannot recover anything, even from an individual who was 99% at fault. This is a very harsh rule, and it's only in place in a few states:
The vast majority of states have a comparative negligence fault system in place, although there are variations in how the rule is applied.
Under pure comparative negligence, each person involved in the accident will recover a percentage of their damages for which they were not at fault. We can illustrate this with the following example.
Lance was riding his bicycle through a four-way stop intersection when another vehicle hit him. Lance and the other driver both ran their respective stop signs. However, the driver of the other vehicle was speeding, and was legally drunk at the time of the accident. Lance was riding slowly through the intersection, and was not impaired. At trial, a jury finds that Lance was 20% at fault for causing the accident while the other driver was 80% at fault. If Lance's injuries amount to $200,000, he can recover $160,000 or 80% of his total damages.
With modified comparative negligence, an individual cannot recover for damages sustained in an accident if their share of fault meets or exceeds 50 percent (states vary on the exact percentage).
Looking back at the above illustration, because Lance's level of fault was less than 50%, his lawsuit will still proceed through the courts in a modified comparative negligence state, although he would still have his damage award reduced by 20%.
Learn more about proving fault for a vehicle accident.
Preventing the Accident
Even in situations where the laws of the road are on the side of the bicyclists, bicyclists should not forget the laws of physics. Motor vehicles are much larger than bicycles and offer a tremendous level of physical protection.
And bicyclists also need to take reasonable steps to avoid accidents. This means no drinking and riding (according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 20% of bicyclists killed in accidents in 2013 had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher) and doing everything possible to be visible to other motorists (such as wearing reflectors, installing blinking lights, and using adequate illumination to see the road effectively).
Speaking of injury prevention, when a bicycle-versus-car accident occurs in a city or state where the law requires the bicyclist to wear a helmet, and the bicyclist wasn't wearing one, he or she is probably going to have a more difficult time getting compensation from the at-fault driver. Learn more about bicycle helmet laws.