When the best way to see the sights is on 2 wheels, it’s important to know how to stay safe
One bicyclist fatality is still too many.
In 2019, the District of Columbia reported 1 bicyclist fatality, which is 4.3% of the 23 people killed in traffic fatalities that year in our nation’s capital, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (source)
While bicycle fatalities in D.C. are low, there’s still a high incidence of bike-related injuries.
Whether you’re cycling the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal for the views of Harpers Ferry and Great Falls, commuting along the Capital Crescent Trail or Metropolitan Branch Trail, or you’re biking on the District’s heavily trafficked roads, it’s important to know D.C. bike laws and safety precautions.
Common causes of bike accidents
Bike accidents can be caused by a number of factors. They can be caused by the rider, a driver, a pedestrian, road conditions, weather, or other problems. But some wrecks are preventable, specifically those that are directly related to cyclist or driver behavior.
Here are some of the most common causes of bicycle accidents:
1. Distracted driving/bicycling
You’ve probably heard plenty of public awareness campaigns about texting and driving or other forms of distracted driving. But distracted biking is an issue, too. Many cyclists look at their phones or other devices while riding, and that’s always dangerous. Your eyes and attention need to be on the road at all times, whether you’re biking or driving. If you want to answer your phone, send a text or change what you’re listening to, pull over safely to do so.
Like drivers, a cyclist should ride in a way that allows them to be in control of their bike at all times. Your speed should depend on road conditions, weather, amount of travel, speed of vehicle traffic, and other factors.
3. Riding too close to traffic
Washington, D.C. requires that a motorist give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing.
4. Intersections and lane merges
Bicyclists should follow the road rules just like motorists. Intersections, lane merges, and other situations where cars are turning or traveling outside of a single lane can be dangerous. It’s important for cyclists to be aware of not only where they’re going, but what the motorists around them are doing, too.
5. Sidewalks, parking lots and driveways
Some drivers (and bicyclists) mistakenly think that because cars tend to move more slowly in parking lots or when backing in or out of a driveway, those areas aren’t dangerous. However, these scenarios often involve limited visibility and unexpected movement, so they can present their own risks.
Liability (fault) for a bike accident in Washington, D.C.
There are a few likely parties who you would expect to be at fault for a bicycle accident, but also some you might not expect:
- Cyclist. In a collision with a car, the cyclist is more likely to be severely injured than a car occupant. A person in a car has the protection of steel-reinforced doors, airbags, and roof, and other safety features that aren’t available to a bicyclist. Really, the only non-behavioral safety precaution for a bicyclist is their helmet. A cyclist has as much of a responsibility as a driver for following road rules, obeying speed limits, being alert to surroundings, and generally traveling safely and with respect for other road users.
- Driver. A driver could be negligent if they’re speeding, swerving, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, using a mobile phone, driving too close to a cyclist, opening their door into the path of a bicyclist, or for a variety of other reasons if a collision occurs.
- Pedestrian. Since a bicycle is considered a vehicle, a bicyclist is required to stop for a pedestrian just as a car would. If a pedestrian steps off the curb into a cyclist’s path, it might be hard for a cyclist to swerve in time or slow down to avoid hitting them, and the court would have to decide who is the negligent party.
- Bicycle manufacturer. Your brakes, chains, frame, or some other part of your bicycle could fail in a crash (or cause a crash), which could be the responsibility of the bike manufacturer. A faulty helmet might not cause a crash, but it can fail to protect your head adequately and result in more severe injuries than you would have suffered otherwise... which is exactly what a helmet is designed to prevent. This type of claim would be a defective product lawsuit.
- Government agency. It’s usually the function of a local government agency to maintain roads and public bike paths. Washington, D.C. operates like a state, while performing functions like a city and county, so the District would be responsible for maintaining its roads.A lot of bicycle accidents happen because of road hazards like fallen rocks, gravel, potholes, debris, leaves, or other issues. If there are issues that aren’t easily fixed (like a sharp turn or railroad tracks), there should be sufficient warning signs. If the District is negligent in keeping it reasonably safe, you might have a premises liability claim.
Washington, D.C. negligence laws
The first thing that happens after a bicycle accident is to get the medical care and treatment you need. But soon after, you’re going to have to pay for it.
That’s why negligence and fault laws for D.C. play an important role — this is how you’ll determine whether and how much you can recover financial damages.
In D.C.’s no-fault system, minor injuries suffered by those in an accident are paid for by their own insurance company, regardless of who was at fault.
This can include expenses for medical treatment, lost wages, and other costs related to the accident.
What is Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance?
Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance covers your medical treatment after an accident injury. Insurance companies are required to offer no-fault PIP insurance to D.C. drivers, in addition to your required liability coverage. However, you’re not required to purchase it.
Of course, this is assuming you have car insurance, which — if you rely on bicycling or public transportation and don’t own a car — you might not.
If you don’t have insurance, or if your insurance doesn’t cover the full extent of your damages, you can file a claim against the at-fault party’s insurance. If their insurance doesn’t cover your injury costs, you can file a personal injury lawsuit for damages.
Contributory negligence fault system in Washington, D.C.
The District of Columbia follows a pure contributory negligence standard, which means if the plaintiff shares any degree of fault, they can’t recover damages for an accident.
If you are making a no-fault claim on your own insurance policy, then negligence and fault are not an issue and the insurance would cover your damages. But if you’re making a claim on someone else’s insurance or if you need to file a lawsuit, you’ll need to prove that the defendant (the at-fault party) was 100% responsible for your injuries.
Statute of limitations for a D.C. bike accident
If you need to file a lawsuit for a bicycle accident in D.C., you have 3 years from the date of the accident in which to do so. You’re also required to provide written notice to the defendant’s insurance company when a claim is filed.
Washington, D.C. bike laws
Here’s a look at 10 laws you must follow when bicycling in Washington, D.C.:
- A bicycle is a vehicle and the rider generally has the same rights and responsibilities as a motor vehicle driver. You must ride in a safe and non-hazardous manner and are not permitted to endanger yourself or others.
- You must ride with the flow of traffic in a travel lane unless there’s a contra-flow bike lane.
- You are permitted to ride on the sidewalk except in the central business district, but a bicyclist must yield to pedestrians and provide an audible signal when passing a pedestrian.
- Bicyclists may not ride more than 2 abreast, except on bike paths or in designated areas. Cyclists riding 2 abreast are not permitted to impede traffic. On a lane roadway, you must ride single-file.
- A bicyclist who is under 16 years old must wear a helmet.
- A bicycle must have a front white light at night that is visible from at least 500 feet and a red rear reflector visible from 300 feet—or the bike may have a steady flashing red light visible from 500 feet instead of a reflector.
- A bicycle must have a brake that allows the bike to skid on dry, level, clean pavement. If the bike has fixed gears, then the cyclist must be able to stop using the pedals.
- Bicyclists must be able to make audible warnings with a bell, device, or their voice that is audible for at least 100 feet.
- A bicycle may only carry the number of people for which it has been properly equipped.
- You must keep one hand on the handlebars at all times and you may not ride while hanging on to a motor vehicle.
Bike accident injuries and damages
If you’re involved in a D.C. bike accident, there are a few steps you can take to preserve your legal claim.
First, get the medical treatment you need. Your physical well-being after an accident is always your first priority.
If you’ve been injured, you’re entitled to recover costs for:
- Medical treatment
- Lost wages
- Property damage or loss
- Pain and suffering or other emotional distress
- Funeral and burial expenses if the accident resulted in the wrongful death of a family member
- Other costs related to the accident
What to do after a bike accident in Washington, D.C.
If you’re able to do so, take these steps after a bike accident:
- Call 911. A police report is an important piece of evidence. Even if your injuries are minor (or you feel uninjured), you’re entitled to (and should get) a police report at the scene.
- Obtain information from the driver. Just like you would after any motor vehicle accident, obtain the driver’s name, address, phone number, email, insurance information, license plate number, and driver’s license number. If you have your phone with you, it’s a good idea to take photos of these documents.
- Obtain witness information. Any person who observed any part of the accident (including events leading up to it or following) can be valuable as a witness. Be sure to write down these people’s names and contact information on a piece of paper or your phone.
- Take note of the conditions at the scene. Weather, road conditions, traffic patterns, signals, and other things could all be factors in a bike accident. The police report should include some of this information, but you should take your own notes, too.
- Get a medical examination. Whether you think you’re injured or not, go to a hospital, your primary physician, or an urgent care center for a medical exam. Some symptoms might not appear until days or weeks after an accident. Full documentation by a medical provider can be crucial to your legal claim. If your condition isn’t documented, it can be hard to prove that your injuries were caused by the bike accident.
- Call a D.C. bike accident lawyer. Because D.C. doesn’t award damages if a plaintiff had any liability in an accident, the driver might try to claim that the collision was completely or partially your fault. That’s why hiring a lawyer is important. A bike accident lawyer is trained and experienced in helping you avoid liability and recover damages.
If you need to speak with a D.C. personal injury lawyer, you can find one near you in the Enjuris law firm directory.
Because of the D.C. contributory negligence laws and insurance rules, it’s important that you speak with an attorney before you speak with any other party or insurance company in order to make sure you can claim the full value of your damages.