Understand your rights and responsibilities as a bicyclist in the Evergreen State
In 2019, Washington was named the nation’s most “bicycle friendly state” by the League of American Bicyclists for the 8th year in a row, but that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen in the Evergreen State.
Whether you’re a seasoned rider or you’re thinking about purchasing your first bike, it’s important to understand your rights and responsibilities as a bicyclist in Washington state.
How common are bicycle accidents?
In the United States, bicycle deaths are at their highest number in 30 years. In 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), 857 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents.
Commentators point to several reasons for the rising death toll, including the fact that Americans are driving faster, logging more miles, and increasingly distracted by their phones.
The good news is that Washington is not among the most dangerous states for bicyclists (that honor belongs to California, Texas, Florida, and New York), but the state has seen its share of bike crashes.
|Washington fatal and serious injury crashes (2015-2020)|
|Serious injury crashes||108||125||92||124||103||95|
Washington bike laws
Most of the laws impacting bicyclists in Washington can be found in Chapter 46.61 of the Revised Code of Washington.
Generally speaking, Washington bike laws can be grouped into 2 categories:
- There is no state law requiring bicyclists to wear bike helmets. However, some cities and counties require helmets.
- When riding at night, bicycles must be equipped with a lamp on the front that emits a white light visible from at least 500 feet and a red reflector on the rear that’s visible from a distance of at least 600 feet.
- When riding on the road, a bicyclist has all the rights and responsibilities of a motor vehicle driver.
- Bicyclists may ride side by side, but not more than 2 abreast.
- Bicyclists traveling slower than the normal flow of traffic must ride as near to the right side of the road as possible.
- Bicyclists must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians on sidewalks and crosswalks.
- When turning left, a bicyclist must extend their left hand and arm horizontally. When turning right, a bicyclist must extend their left hand and arm upward or extend their right hand and arm horizontally.
- No bicycle shall be used to carry more persons at one time than the number for which it’s designed and equipped.
- A bicyclist CANNOT receive a citation for driving under the influence (DUI). However, a law enforcement officer can impound a bicycle operated by an intoxicated bicyclist if the officer determines that impoundment is necessary to reduce a threat to public safety.
Establishing fault in a Washington bicycle accident
To recover damages from a collision, you need to establish that someone else was at fault for your bike accident. How you establish fault depends on the nature of your bike accident. There are 3 main types of bike accidents:
1. Bike accidents caused by motor vehicles
The vast majority of personal injury claims made by bicyclists against motor vehicle drivers after a bike accident are negligence claims. To prove that a motor vehicle driver was negligent in Washington, a bicyclist must show:
- The driver owed the bicyclist a duty. All drivers have a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming others on the road.
- The driver breached their duty. To prove that a driver breached their duty, the bicyclist will have to show that the driver failed to exercise a reasonable degree of care. For example, if the driver ran a red light or was texting while driving, this may constitute a breach of duty.
- The bicyclist was injured as a result of the driver’s breach. It’s not enough that the driver failed to exercise reasonable care, the bicyclist must prove that the failure caused their accident and resulting injuries.
2. Bike accidents caused by poor road conditions
Premises liability laws in Washington require property owners to keep their property free from dangerous conditions. This includes public and private roads.
If a bicyclist is injured as a result of a dangerous condition (such as a large pothole or an obscured stop sign), the owner of the property can be held liable.
If you think you may have a valid lawsuit against the government, it’s a good idea to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible.
3. Bike accidents caused by a defective bike component
If your bicycle accident is caused by a defective bike component (such as a faulty brake system), the manufacturer can be held liable.
The drummer broke his wrist as a result of the accident.
Jose filed a lawsuit against the bike manufacturer, claiming that the handlebar was defective. He is seeking reimbursement for his medical costs and lost earnings.
Comparative fault and bicycle accident liability
Bike accidents are often caused by motor vehicle drivers, poor road conditions, or defective bike components, but that doesn’t mean the bicyclist is always completely innocent. In some cases, bicyclists are partially at fault for their accidents.
Washington follows the pure comparative fault rule, meaning a plaintiff’s damages are reduced by their percentage of fault.
Let’s look at an example:
At the same time, Kelly is leaving a house party on Grand Boulevard. Kelly is intoxicated, but she nevertheless gets into her vehicle and backs out of the driveway onto Grand Boulevard.
Kelly and Chris collide.
Chris fractures his arm and injures his back. He sues Kelly for $100,000. After a trial, the court decides that Kelly was 70% at fault for the accident (for driving while under the influence) and Chris was 30% at fault (for driving at night without a bike light).
Under Washington’s pure comparative fault rule, Chris would only be able to recover $70,000 (i.e., his court-awarded damages, minus the percentage of fault assigned to him).
Does insurance cover a bike accident?
Washington has a fault-based insurance system, which means that whoever causes an accident is responsible for paying the damages.
Most bicyclists understand that if a motor vehicle driver causes a bike accident, the injured bicyclists can file a claim against the at-fault driver’s auto insurance policy.
But what happens if a bicyclist causes an auto accident, or if the at-fault driver fled the scene and cannot be found? Who pays for damages?
Generally speaking, your car insurance policy will NOT cover an accident that you caused while riding your bicycle. However, some car insurance policies have additional coverage (such as PIP coverage) that might apply.
What’s more, homeowners’ and renters’ insurance policies sometimes cover damages to your bicycle. Health insurance typically does not cover damages to your bicycle, but it will of course cover certain injuries.
Types of bike injuries and damages
As you might imagine, when a 17-pound road bike and a 4,500-pound motor vehicle collide, it’s usually the bicyclist who ends up with the more severe injuries.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine found that most bicycle-related injuries occur to the upper or lower extremities, followed by the head, face, abdomen, and neck.
Fortunately, Washington law allows some bike accident victims to recover the following damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., pain and suffering, loss of consortium).
Bicycle safety tips
The Washington State Department of Transportation has gathered a number of safety tips designed to help keep you safe while riding a bicycle:
- Obey traffic signs and signals. Bicycles must follow the rules of the road like other vehicles.
- Never ride against traffic. Motorists aren't looking for bicyclists riding on the wrong side of the road. State law and common sense require that bicyclists drive like other vehicles.
- Follow lane markings. Don't turn left from the right lane. Don't go straight in a lane marked “right-turn only.”
- Don’t pass on the right. Motorists may not look for or see a bicycle passing on the right.
- Scan the road behind you. Learn to look back over your shoulder without losing your balance or swerving. Some riders use rear-view mirrors.
- Keep both hands ready to brake. You may not stop in time if you brake one-handed. Allow extra distance for stopping in the rain, since brakes are less efficient when wet.
- Wear a helmet and never ride with headphones. Always wear a helmet. Never wear a headphone while riding a bike.
- Dress for the weather. In the rain, wear a poncho or waterproof suit. Dress in layers so you can adjust to temperature changes. Wear bright-colored clothing.
- Use hand signals. Hand signals tell motorists and pedestrians what you intend to do. Signal as a matter of law, of courtesy, and of self-protection.
- Ride in the middle of the lane in slower traffic. Get in the middle of the lane at busy intersections and whenever you are moving at the same speed as traffic.
- Make eye contact with drivers. Assume that other drivers don't see you until you are sure that they do. Eye contact is important with any driver who might pose a threat to your safety.
- Look out for road hazards. Watch out for parallel-slat sewer grates, gravel, ice, sand, or debris. Cross railroad tracks at right angles.
- Keep your bike in good repair. Adjust your bike to fit you and keep it working properly. Check brakes and tires regularly. Routine maintenance is simple and you can learn to do it yourself.
What to do after a bike crash in Washington
The aftermath of a bike accident can be chaotic, but keeping these simple steps in mind can help improve your chances of recovering the damages you deserve:
- Step 1: Seek medical attention. Your health should be your top priority. Even if you don’t think you’ve been injured, it’s a good idea to see a doctor immediately after an accident. The symptoms of some injuries, including serious internal injuries, may not appear for hours or even days after an accident. What’s more, going to the hospital undermines the common argument made by insurance companies and defendants that the cyclist wasn’t really injured.
- Step 2: Call the police. The police can conduct an investigation and draft a police report. Police reports can help establish who’s at fault for an accident. What’s more, police reports often contain the contact information for any witnesses at the scene.
- Step 3. Don’t apologize or admit to liability. Even if you think the accident was your fault, avoid apologizing for the accident or saying anything else that suggests you’re at fault.
- Step 4: Collect driver information. If the police arrive on the scene, they can help you collect this information. Otherwise, you’ll need to get the information yourself. Be sure to write down or take a picture of the driver’s name, license, contact information, insurance information, and license plate number.
- Step 5: Collect witness information. Witnesses are notoriously difficult to track down after an accident. The best chance of collecting their contact information is immediately after the crash. Though police will often collect this information, they may miss witnesses or fail to add their contact information to the police report, so it’s helpful to do so yourself if possible.
- Step 6: Preserve evidence. Take pictures of the scene and any damages (including physical injuries). In addition, if your clothes were bloodied or your bike was damaged, preserve those objects as they may be important evidence in your case.
- Step 7: Review all of your insurance policies. As discussed above, some of your insurance policies (homeowners insurance, renters insurance, etc.) may provide coverage for your bike accident.
- Step 8. Don’t post anything about your bike crash on social media. Social media posts, more often than not, will hurt your personal injury case.