Malevolent Motorists – What Bicyclists Can Do About Them

November 15, 2015

We’ve all been there. Minding our own business, riding our bikes down the road, and obeying all the traffic laws, when some crazy motorist whizzes by and yells, “Get on the sidewalk!” Even worse, the motorist tosses a beer bottle at your head. It’s maddening and wrong. Bicyclists are legally entitled to ride on the road, provided they abide by the rules of the road.

Rules of the Road

According to Michigan and most state law, a bicycle is considered a vehicle and its operator is entitled to reasonable use of the road.

What is reasonable use of the road? Typically, reasonable use of the road means that a bicyclist has full rights to ride on a roadway, provided that he or she rides as near to the right of the roadway as practicable. Cyclists are also entitled to ride two abreast – a little-known fact. If, however, the shoulder of the road is suitable for biking, then the bicyclist is obliged to ride on the shoulder.

When passing a biker, the automobile driver should warn the biker of the anticipated pass and then overtake the biker while giving ample room. Obviously, by warning the biker with a honk, the automobile driver risks startling the biker. This is a judgment call by the driver who is obligated to pass at a safe distance – a distance that must be determined by the conditions and circumstances existing at that moment. Even if the car driver fails to warn the bicyclist of his approach, too often vehicles pass the bicyclist much too closely, leaving little room for error. The automobile driver must anticipate that the cyclist may veer off his course by, for example, hitting cracks and potholes in the road or avoiding debris. Michigan law does not specify the distance from which the biker must travel from the side of the road or the distance from which the automobile driver must pass the biker. It all depends on the circumstances. Use common sense.

Handling Malevolent Motorists

The best thing NOT to do when confronted with an angry automobile driver is to antagonize him or her. The reality of the situation is that the biker is in a more vulnerable position than the car driver. Here are a few suggestions of things to do:

  • Obey the Law. The biggest mistake a biker can make is to act as if he is above the law. It doesn’t do much to help the “cause,” if motorists constantly see bicyclists failing to abide the law. If bikers want motorists to respect their rights, they have to obey the traffic laws. That means that a bicyclist, at a minimum, must stop at all stop signs and traffic lights, must yield to pedestrians, must pass on the left when on a two-way street, if appropriate, and must ride with the flow of traffic and to the right of the right lane. In the long run, obeying the law will not only ensure that your ride is a safer one, but it gives you room to complain when a motorist does not obey the law.
  • When confronted with a misinformed police officer (e.g. one that tells you to ride on the sidewalk), never argue with him or her. Be polite. Take his or her name and precinct number. Do what they say. Call the precinct and either file a complaint or ask to speak to their supervisor. At all times, however, it is important to be courteous and nonconfrontational. We need the law enforcement officers on our side. The goal here is to make a change – not create more enemies.
  • Make a Police Report. Relying on your memory while riding is risky. It is a good idea to carry a pen, small pad of paper or cellular phone in your bike or fanny pack. Record the license plate number of any car that fails to abide by the rules of the road or exhibits overly aggressive behavior toward you and make a police report. Getting mad and flipping the driver the bird may make you feel better but it’s not going to change anything. Take the effort to file the complaint with the local authorities. If enough of us complain in a rational voice, change and action is more likely to occur.
  • Photograph the Offending Motorist. Velcro a disposable camera to your bicycle. If confronted by an angry automobile driver, pull out the camera and take the photo. Most likely, the aggressive behavior will stop and you’ll also have documentary evidence for your police report. A camera may also come in handy to photograph the scene of an accident.
  • Call Your Attorney. Ultimately, bicyclists cannot count on automobile drivers to know the rules of the road. It is the biker who must take on the burden of ensuring that his ride is a safe one. In the unfortunate event that you are hit, cut off or otherwise involved in a bike crash caused by a vehicle, do all of the above and contact your attorney. You have rights and may be able to recover for your bike damage and personal injuries. Additionally, it is prudent to hold off making any statements regarding fault or liability until after you’ve spoken with your attorney. In our experience, athletes have a tendency to slough off any injuries and take responsibility for the accident. After an accident you are usually dazed, confused and don’t appreciate the nature and extent of your injuries or the cause of the accident. Cooperate with the police but refrain from making any admissions or statements of liability until you’ve consulted with your attorney.
  • Spread the Word. Whenever you get the chance, explain the rules of the road to your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers – anyone that will listen. It’s amazing how many people, including law enforcement officers, really believe that cyclists do not belong on the road. Education and awareness is the key to change.
Criminal Penalties

If a driver hits a cyclist or causes an accident, criminal penalties will most likely be imposed. The charge could range from careless or reckless driving to manslaughter – wanton disregard for human life. There are also various possible charges if the driver is under the influence of alcohol and causes serious bodily injury – a five year felony – or if death occurs – a fifteen-year felony. If the driver does not stop to help the injured cyclist, he could also be charged with leaving the scene of an accident. That is why it’s important to always get the license plate number and/or description of the car if you are able. The list of possible offenses is almost endless depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. The charge and ultimate penalty imposed, however, is up to the law enforcement personnel and the judge or jury. Your participation in the criminal aspects of any bicycle injury matter would be limited to being asked to make a statement or to act as a witness. Any evidence or verdict obtained from a criminal proceeding, however, could be used in your civil case.

Be Safe, Know Your Rights and Spread the Word.

In the final analysis, it is up to the cyclist to ensure his or her safety. After being hit by an automobile, it is little consolation to know that you had the right of the way. Hopefully, though, with a little education, a little more awareness and a little common sense, we can all learn to share the road and make it a safer, friendlier place for bicyclists.

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