Before you rev up your bike, know the laws, road rules, and what to do if you’re in a motorcycle wreck
Motorcycles are inherently more dangerous than riding in a car.
That's not bias, it's fact. A car has a frame that protects occupants — not to mention bumpers, seat belts, steel-reinforced doors, airbags, and other safety features designed to minimize injury in a crash.
But a motorcycle is open by design. It's easy for a rider to be thrown from their bike, and that could mean impact with the ground, another vehicle, a wall, or any other surface. There simply isn't the protection that you have as a car occupant.
Of course, many motorcyclists are willing to face these risks because they enjoy the freedom of riding on 2 wheels. Whether or not you own a motorcycle, it's important to understand some basic safety tips and know what to do in the event of a motorcycle crash in our nation's capital.
Washington, D.C. motorcycle accident statistics
Below is a summary of the number of motorcycles involved in fatal accidents in Washington, D.C. from 2010-2019:
It can be tricky to ride safely in the District because there's so much traffic congestion. Many motorcyclists say that car drivers can be unpredictable and the motorcyclists prefer to cross into neighboring states with their bikes.
Common causes of motorcycle accidents
One of the most common causes of motorcycle accidents (and most accidents, generally) is distracted driving.
It's not easy to text while riding a motorcycle, but you're not the only driver on the road — any driver can be distracted behind the wheel or handlebars, whether it's a motorcyclist, car driver, truck driver, bicyclist, or any other road user.
Distracted driving doesn't have to be texting, either. It could be any other use of an electronic device, or for a motorcyclist it could be:
- Eating or drinking
- Using a navigation device
- Something distracting that happens on the side of the road or elsewhere in view
Alcohol or other substances
District laws prohibit operating a motorcycle or other vehicle if the driver has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher.
In addition, if you're under the age of 21, you're not permitted to have any amount of measurable alcohol in your body while driving. Driving with a prohibited drug in your bloodstream is also an aggravating factor that would increase a penalty if you're charged with an alcohol-related traffic offense.
Importantly, though, it's not just about the penalties — driving under the influence is extremely dangerous, particularly for motorcyclists. If a driver is impaired by a substance, their reactions are slowed, behavior is erratic, and decision-making skills are compromised.
As a motorcyclist, drunk driving is even more dangerous than in a car because one small swerve or accidental motion could have deadly consequences.
Rear-end or lane change accidents
Motorcyclists can scoot into spots that drivers don't expect, and perhaps that they don't see so easily. Many motorcycle accidents happen because a driver making a lane change didn't realize a motorcycle was approaching from behind.
Rear-end accidents are a particularly common type of collision for all kinds of vehicles. The difference is that when 2 cars have a rear-end accident ("fender-bender"), it often results in only minor injuries. But when one vehicle is a motorcycle, the rider can be seriously injured.
Part of the thrill of riding a motorcycle can be speed... but you're still bound to the speed limits of the road you're traveling.
However, many motorcyclist accidents happen because the cars around them are speeding.
District of Columbia motorcycle laws and requirements
Licensing and other motorcycle rules
In order to operate a motorcycle in D.C, you must have a motorcycle endorsement on your driver's license. To obtain this endorsement, you must meet these 4 requirements:
- You're at least 18 years old.
- You have a valid D.C. driver's license.
- You've passed the D.C. motorcycle knowledge test.
- You've passed the motorcycle demonstration skills test or provided proof of completion of a course approved by Maryland or Virginia.
You must also pay attention to other D.C. motorcycle rules, including:
- Inspect, register, and insure your motorcycle
- Wear eye protection like goggles or a face shield
- Have a left-side rear-view mirror
- Use a daytime or modulating headlight
- Do not use or carry a radar detector
- Handlebars must be no higher than 15 inches above the seat
- Do not use a muffler or other equipment to amplify the sound to more than 86 decibels
- You must have a passenger seat and footrest if you carry a passenger
Lane splitting or sharing in Washington, D.C.
Usually, the law is clear about whether something is allowed or not — it's written that way so that there's little question about if someone is breaking the law or not.
Interestingly, in Washington, D.C. (and many states) the practice of lane splitting is neither allowed nor prohibited for motorcyclists.
However, although D.C. does not explicitly make lane splitting illegal, it does have rules about passing and overtaking. For instance, you may only overtake and pass a vehicle to your right if it is safe to do so without driving off the roadway.
In other words, if you're in an accident while lane splitting, that doesn't automatically make you at fault unless you were not following another rule of the road.
Motorcycle helmet laws
Every motorcyclist in Washington, D.C. must wear a DOT-approved helmet.
A helmet must meet DOT standards, fit snugly, and be free from obvious defects like cracks, frayed straps, or loose padding.
Safety goggles or other eye protection are also required in Washington, D.C. because they help avoid traumatic scrapes to the eyes. They can also prevent an accident because they help the rider avoid being temporarily blinded by dust or debris.
Other recommended safety equipment — while not required — that can help motorcyclists stay safe include:
- Leather or ballistic nylon clothes are durable and resistant to scrapes and act as an additional layer of skin.
- Protective gloves can prevent scrapes or cuts to the hands.
- Boots or durable footwear can provide traction while riding and also protect feet from abrasion during sudden braking.
Common motorcycle accident injuries
- Road rash. Road rash injuries are scrapes or abrasions that happen as parts of the body are dragged along the road surface. Often, this affects a motorcyclist's arms, legs, hips and shoulders.
- Head trauma. A blow to the head can cause a fractured skull, concussion, or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
- Burns. Motorcycle engine parts can be very hot, and contact can cause 2nd- or 3rd-degree burns.
- Neck and spine injuries. Herniated discs, paralysis, cracked vertebrae, or death can be the result of a motorcycle-related neck or spine injury.
- Soft tissue injuries. Sprains, strains, or other injuries to muscles, tendons or ligaments can cause serious and chronic pain.
- Fractures. A fracture is one of the most common injuries, as bones can break from impact with another vehicle or the road.
- Internal injuries. Any injury to the organs (like lungs, spleen, kidneys, intestines, etc.) can result in bleeding or other complications.
Washington, D.C. no-fault and pure contributory negligence laws
The District follows a no-fault system, which means an insurance company pays for its own insured's minor injuries, regardless of who was at fault.
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.
In Washington, D.C., PIP covers:
- Medical and rehabilitation expenses up to $50,000 per person
- The insurer must offer a $100,000 coverage option
- It includes the person named in the policy, their vehicle occupants, and the occupants of any vehicle they are driving at the time of the accident
However, PIP does not cover lost wages or pain and suffering. It's solely for medical expenses.
After an accident in the District, you have 60 days in which to elect to use your no-fault option or to file a claim against the at-fault driver. If you choose no-fault, you are not permitted to submit a claim against the driver later.
There are 2 exceptions, however:
- If your medical costs exceed the amount of PIP coverage, and
- If you suffered a significant impairment.
A "significant impairment" is a permanent impairment, scarring, or disability that lasts 6 months or longer. If you meet these criteria, you may file a claim on your own PIP policy and a claim against the at-fault driver's policy.
Pure contributory negligence standard in the District of Columbia
D.C. 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 share fault, you can make a claim for PIP (no-fault) medical benefits from your insurance company. Because PIP insurance is no-fault, your claim should not be denied because of contributory negligence. However, you would not be able to recover damages in a lawsuit because of this negligence standard.
How motorcycle bias can hurt your personal injury case
Motorcyclists can be victims of bias on the roadway and in the courts.
Most bikers follow the rules and ride safely. But a few like to speed or "cut corners" when they ride, and other drivers feel that it's unsafe and disrespectful.
That type of behavior leads to bias — or stigma — against motorcyclists that can affect how they are treated by other drivers, bystander witnesses, police officers, insurance adjusters, and even judges and juries. This can negatively affect a motorcyclist in a lawsuit.
Because of biases and stereotypes against motorcyclists, they're more likely to be presumed liable for an accident, receive lowball settlement offers, or even get reduced damage awards in a jury trial.
How can motorcyclists avoid bias?
- Be kind and courteous. This should probably go without saying, but approach the other driver with courtesy, show concern for their condition, and don't immediately make accusations. You can be kind and courteous without admitting fault. Never say that the accident was your fault (even if you think it was, or even if you're just trying to be nice). Admitting fault may come back to haunt you in a trial or settlement negotiations. Let the evidence speak for itself, and don't make any statements that might hurt you later.
- Always wear a helmet. Aside from wearing a helmet anytime you're on your bike for safety reasons (and because it's illegal not to in D.C.), it also demonstrates that you're concerned for your own safety and you know the rules and best practices for motorcycling.
- Obtain witness contact information. If there are witnesses at the scene, you don't need to take a statement right away, but it's a good idea to get their name and phone number so you or your attorney can reach them later. Their statements should be included in the police report, but your lawyer might want to reach out to them to bolster your case.
- Drive safely. It's important that you follow the road rules, avoid speeding, and demonstrate careful driving on your motorcycle before an accident happens. Avoid lane-splitting, weaving in and out of traffic, or riding in a way that a witness might see as unsafe. If a witness sees you driving carefully and being respectful of other drivers before an accident happens, that witness could be your best ally in a legal case.
Along those lines, make it a habit to ride carefully and respectfully at all times while on your bike. Building a history as a good driver can help you if you ever end up in court. If you rack up speeding tickets or other violations and wind up in court, this history will not work to your advantage. If every motorcyclist rides responsibly and carefully, it also builds the public's goodwill and trust so that over time we can break down some of the bias that exists today.
What to do after a D.C. motorcycle accident (5 steps)
- Seek medical attention. Even if you feel "fine," or if your injuries seem minor, go to a doctor or hospital immediately. An accident can leave you in a state of shock that could make you numb to what your body is actually experiencing. There are also conditions (like whiplash or a concussion) that might not show immediate symptoms but that appear later. It's essential that you get an immediate medical evaluation because it can be more difficult to secure an insurance settlement or win a personal injury claim otherwise.
- Call the police. Even if you believe there's no damage or injury, a police report can help you if the other driver later claims that you were at fault. Remember, because D.C. is a pure contributory negligence jurisdiction, so who's at fault could be the make-or-break factor for whether you can win damages.
- Document the evidence. Whether or not the police respond to the scene (if the accident is very minor, they might not), you should stop and get some necessary information. It's important to write down any involved drivers' names, addresses, and phone numbers, as well as their insurance information, vehicle information (including license plates and Vehicle Identification Numbers—or VIN), along with their vehicle's make, model, and year.
- Notify your insurance company. Even if you think you were at fault for the accident, it's important to report any collision to your own insurance company. Some insurers won't settle a claim if it's not reported within a specific time period. A "report" is different from a "claim." You might not be planning to file a claim, but you still need to let the insurance company know that the accident happened.
- Consult a D.C. motorcycle accident lawyer. In a "regular" car crash, an accident can often be resolved by the drivers' insurance adjusters negotiating a settlement. But a motorcycle accident is often more complicated for a number of reasons. A lawyer can help fight unfair bias and ensure that you receive what you deserve. Motorcyclists have the same rights as car drivers and you deserve to recover damages, too.
A personal injury lawyer helps individuals who have sustained injuries in accidents to recover financial compensation. These funds are often needed to pay for medical treatment, make up for lost wages and provide compensation for injuries suffered. Sometimes a case that seems simple at first may become more complicated. In these cases, consider hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. Read more