Articles Posted in Bicycle Accidents

The horrific death of a cyclist in New York City earlier this month – a moment captured on video – has brought attention to the way police there and in many other parts of the country treat fatalities brought about by reckless driving.

The New York Times reports that an 18-year-old man has been arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of a 52-year-old cyclist in Brooklyn earlier this month. Barreling through a red light at high speed, the driver slammed into an SUV that was passing legally through the intersection. The force of the impact flung the SUV caddy-corner across the intersection directly into a cyclist who was patiently waiting for the red light to change on the opposite corner. The entire incident was captured on a dashcam video by another car waiting at the corner where the bike rider died. (Note: the first paragraph of The New York Times story below includes a link to the video. Be warned that it is extremely graphic and unsettling)

The newspaper reports that “bicycle advocates want stronger laws, as well as a cultural change similar to the one around drunken driving.” The question, at its root, is when reckless or negligent behavior crosses the line into criminality. The paper notes that “drivers who cause fatalities are almost never criminally charged, unless there are aggravating circumstances… running a red light is almost never considered reckless driving” even in a case like this where doing so leads to someone’s death.

One might have thought that buses – some of the largest vehicles navigating Portland’s streets on a day-to-day basis – are fairly hard to miss. TriMet, however, is experimenting with bright rooftop lights designed to make them easier to see, according to The Oregonian. “The transit agency quietly rolled out the ‘amber safety lights’ in April and, so far, 30 buses are equipped with the light bar. It’s considering installing the devices on all its buses,” the newspaper reports.

The Oregonian, citing TriMet data, writes that “buses log roughly 73,300 miles on a daily basis. In April, TriMet registered 49 collisions involving buses, 25 of which were non-injury crashes involving cars or trucks.” Put another way, that means that TriMet is averaging almost one injury crash per day systemwide. Portland is a large city and there is always going to be a human element involved, but a system in which someone gets hurt every day clearly has more safety work to do.

So, at a basic level, we should all welcome any effort by TriMet to cut its accident rate. The newspaper’s article reports that the lights on the busses are extremely hard to miss, and notes that the cost of installing then is relatively slight – less than $500 per vehicle. Considering the number of bus accidents I have reported on in this blog over the years we can probably all agree that anything which improves safety is a good thing.

An annual report compiled by Allstate insurance on driving safety across the nation has good and bad news for Portland, according to The Oregonian. The good news is that Portland jumped nine spots in the company’s ranking of driving safety in 200 American cities. The bad news is that still left us in 181stplace.

The newspaper notes that this also puts Portland “dead last among the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest based on the insurance agency’s analysis of crash frequency based on claims submitted. According to the rankings, the average Portland driver is involved in a crash every seven years, the average Seattle driver experiences a crash every 7.7 years. The average driver in Boise, which ranked second overall in the nation for safest drivers, was involved in a crash every 13.7 years. The national average is one crash every 10.6 years.” The survey identified Brownsville, Texas as the safest American city for drivers. Baltimore occupied last-place on the Allstate table.

The two other cities in the survey received notably better rankings than Portland. Eugene is number 34 on the list. Salem is number 102. Interestingly, Vancouver, Washington – just across the river from Portland – has a substantially better, if still less than stellar, ranking of 114.

As many of us prepared for this July 4 holiday week the Oregon legislature passed a key bike safety measure and sent it to Governor Kate Brown. As outlined by The Oregonian, Senate Bill 998 will “allow bicyclists to legally treat stop signs or intersections with flashing red signals as a yield sign, meaning they would not be required to come to a complete stop.”

The paper notes that similar legislation has been effect in Idaho for more than three decades and that that the measure has long been pushed by bike advocates in our state. By allowing cyclists to maintain momentum in situations where it is safe to do so it will improve the general flow of traffic on our roads and bike paths, and reduce the risk of falls at intersections for riders using clip-in pedals.

Crucially, SB 998 is not a license for riders to ignore stop signs. As The Oregonian reports, the bill says cyclists need not come to a complete stop only “as long as they slow to a safe speed, yield the right of way to pedestrians, and yield to traffic that is already in the intersection or approaching so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

A bike safety measure that The Oregonian describes as the “top priority in the 2019 legislative session” for cycling advocates has passed both houses of the legislature and is headed to Governor Kate Brown for her approval. Its core is a deceptively simple statement: “A bicycle lane exists in an intersection if the bicycle lane is marked on opposite sides of the intersection in the same direction of travel.”

That might sound like common sense, but a judge in Bend shocked the biking community last fall by ruling otherwise (click here for the blog I wrote on this case at the time). As a matter of law that case turned on ORS 811.415, a statute that defines unsafe passing on the right. In the Bend case a commercial truck driver struck and killed a bike rider in an intersection as the cyclist was following a bike lane through an intersection. The truck was turning. The court held that bike lanes do not exist in places where they are not striped or painted as they pass through intersections, therefore the obligation the truck driver would have had to signal and take due care when turning across another traffic lane did not apply (the newspaper notes that a Multnomah County court issued a similar ruling in a 2009 case). This was a dubious bit of legal reasoning at the time. The legislature has now clarified the question, and deserves credit for moving swiftly to do so.

Under Oregon law a bike lane is just as much a ‘lane’ as one dedicated to cars. ORS 814.400 is titled “Application of vehicle laws to bicycles.” It gives cyclists rights, and just as it requires them to respect the rules of the road in their interactions with cars it requires motorists to respect the rights of cyclists. Indeed, a related law, ORS 814.420, requires that cyclists use bike lanes where they are available. Taking those as a starting point why would one not assume that a bike lane extends across an intersection? To believe it does not would imply that cars need not keep to their lane or turn only in a legal manner when they cross intersections. No one who has passed a driving test would ever believe that is the case.

Portland rightly enjoys a reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. But fatal accidents still take place, drivers still are not as aware of cyclists as they should be. Even when drivers are trying to do the right thing (as many in Portland are) riders often find themselves struggling through nearly impossible situations.

Take, for example, NW 10thStreet. As a recent article posted on the BikePortland website demonstrates, it is hard for a rider in this part of downtown Portland not to feel endangered. A photo accompanying the article shows a narrow thoroughfare that contains on-street parking, a traffic lane and a streetcar track (with the streetcar and the cars moving in opposite directions). Any cyclist following the law and riding with auto traffic is immediately placed in a highly dangerous situation (as BikePortland notes, the law does allow cyclists to use the streetcar lane, but for obvious reasons many hesitate to do so). The gap between the traffic lane and the parked cars is uncomfortably narrow leaving riders dangerously exposed to drivers who might pull out or open car doors abruptly. There is more space on the opposite side, beyond the streetcar, but that is an area reserved for pedestrians and, in any case, there would usually be no safe place for a cyclist to go in the face of an oncoming tram.

Oregon law is quite explicit about the rights and responsibilities of bike riders. ORS 814.400 begins: “Every person riding a bicycle upon a public way is subject to the provisions applicable to and has the same rights and duties as the driver of any other vehicle.”

The Associated Press recently reported on the sentencing of a woman in Deschutes County to more than 12 years in prison following a December 2017 incident in which she struck and killed a 38-year-old Bend woman who was riding a bike.

The news agency, citing local TV station KTVZ, quotes the Deschutes County Circuit Judge overseeing the trial calling it “the most extreme reckless endangerment case:” he had ever seen. The defendant was convicted “for hitting and killing a cyclist while driving under the influence (of)… nearly a dozen prescription drugs, including her dog’s anxiety pills, at the time of the crash,” the AP reports. Clearly there is a case to be made for punitive damages here.

Though the criminal trial is now over, the question of civil damages is one that may still need to be addressed. Obviously there is a strong case to be made for a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s estate. It is also worth noting that, according to media reports, the woman was “riding with two friends” on a road east of Bend at the time of the accident. The survivors, even if they were not physically injured, may have a strong case to make for damages based on the mental distress they have suffered in the wake of their friend’s death. All of these parties – the decedent’s beneficiaries as well as the other two people impacted by the accident – have a strong claim to punitive damages.

In an exciting development for area cyclists, The Oregonian reports that Portland’s city council has “blessed a plan to build a protected two-way bike path on North Greeley Avenue between Interstate 5 and Swan Island.” The $1.9 million project will involve repaving Greeley as part of the construction process. If everything goes according to plan the path will be open in the fall of 2019.

The path will be a significant addition to Portland’s cycling infrastructure, creating a protected cycleway to replace what the newspaper says “might be one of the most dangerous bike lanes in Portland.” I have written in the past about the dangers of cycling on North Greeley. A video on The Oregonian’s website aptly illustrates what a hair-raising experience a ride along this road currently is. Traffic speeds past on a road where the existing shoulder is narrow and in poor condition. The paper notes that “two bicyclists have been seriously injured on the stretch of road between 2007 and 2016.”

Oregon already has strict laws designed to protect cyclists. ORS 811.050 designates failure to yield to a cyclist in a bike lane as a Class B traffic violation (meaning it incurs a fine of up to $1000). That is important to keep in mind on North Greeley where even after the new bike path is constructed drivers headed south will have to cross the bike lane as they enter the I-5 onramp.

Bike share programs have become popular across the country, and it is no surprise that famously bike-friendly Portland is part of the trend. That’s why the news that Motivate, the company that runs Biketown (and many other bike share programs nationwide), has a new owner should be of interest to anyone who cares about Portland as a cycling community.

The buyer is Lyft, a company best known for its car-hailing app. The Oregonian quotes a company statement promising “to help take bike share to the next level” with more bikes and more docking stations. With a single company running the bike share programs in cities across the country there is also the potential for rentals to become nearly seamless nationwide.

But Lyft’s emergence as a major player in bike share also raises questions. Let’s start with maintenance. When you return a rental car it is checked before being sent back out with another customer. When you roll a share bike into a docking station it usually just sits there until someone else checks it out or until the bike share operator moves it to a different location (regular and systematic redistribution of the bikes is a key element of any successful share program). Clearly no one is going to select a bike from the docking station if it has serious, visible damage. But there have always been legal questions about how bike share companies should deal with more subtle mechanical problems. Gears, the chain and the brakes can all be damaged in ways not immediately visible to someone who knows little about bike maintenance. It is worth asking what steps are being taken to guarantee a safe ride for bike share customers.

A court hearing in Bend earlier this month is bringing long overdue attention to some of the legal issues surrounding accidents and bike lanes. The Deschutes County proceeding focused on the death last November of a 31-year-old cyclist who was “hit and killed in an intersection by a FedEx truck,” according to a report in The Oregonian.

Prosecutors described bike lanes as the center of the case. “This is cultural,” the newspaper quotes the county prosecutor saying. “Many people just don’t think of them as lanes.”

According to the newspaper, the cyclist sped down a hill and through an intersection, colliding with the side of a FedEx semi-truck as it was making a right-turn from NW Wall Street onto NW Olney Avenue in Bend. The rider “was also traveling north on Wall, in a bike lane alongside the travel lane. (He) intended to go through the intersection and not turn right onto Olney Avenue,” according to The Oregonian.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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