Bicycling and the law

Posted by SuperClydesdale on April 21, 2010 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

Bicycling and The Law

Now you too can sue someone!

The rule of law is what separates so-called first-world nations from developing ones.   Without an orderly and predictable legal system, nations are corrupt, chaotic, and struggle to meet the basic needs of their people.   The rule of law must reign supreme.

Today, the United States is a country not so much governed by laws as it is a country ruled by fear of lawyers – and their lawsuits.   Every time something happens, the first question we are trained to ask is, “who’s fault is that?”  And, nowadays, it’s not your fault, it’s the other guys.  It doesn’t matter what has happened.  Our predictable legal system has devolved into a state such that seemingly each day, we read of yet another crazy lawsuit being filed, and sometimes won, at the expense of our societal sensibilities.

Despite my disgust with toilet-lid-peeing rude sacks of crap that call themselves cyclists that refuse to be considerate enough to allow motorists to pass,  and who give all cyclists a bad reputation, which results in motorists harassing cyclists, I am a advocate and evangelist for the riding of bikes.  It’s one of my passions, in addition to writing run-on sentences.

I do think that riding bikes, and having fair access to the highways and byways, as well as the city streets, is important.  Cyclists are constantly challenged by their environment.   “Is that guy going to stop?”  “Does he see me?”  “Do these shorts make me look fat?”  These are all common questions that I struggle with almost on a daily basis.   With your next crash always as close as your next ride, It’s good to know what your rights and obligations are as a cyclist.

But, in today’s litigious age, where we’d just as soon file suit as say “hello,” one needs to be concerned with liability.  This is something that I think about quite a bit on rides – liability.    Forget the helmet.   Forget safety.  That only protects you from yourself.  You need to protect yourself from others, both their vehicles (be they cars, bikes, skateboards), their pets, their stupid decisions, and perhaps more importantly, their lawsuits.   One would expect that if someone hits you or causes you to crash, that they are on the hook for the costs of the crash, both medical and financial.  However, that’s not always the case, and getting a fair shake as a cyclist can be a daunting task.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting book on just this topic, appropriately entitled, “Cycling and the Law.”  It’s written by a former Olympic and professional racer named Bob Mionske.   He’s a former teammate of Lance Armstrong at the 1992 Olympic games (and he was on the 1988 Olympic team).   He must have had a severe brain injury at some point in his cycling career, because afterwards, he became a lawyer.   Still a passionate cyclist, he now does quite a bit of work in the area of what I’ll call bicycle law.

The book is ideal for me for several important reasons.   First, it has a very clever cover.  Since I buy a lot of books, and read only a minority of them, it’s important that the book look good, as it will become a fixture around the house as I leave it strategically located as both a reminder to read it as well as a demonstration to what few house guests I have that I can read, and that I read things that so weighty that I must be smart.  The font on the cover and on the spine is large and cool as well, which helps me appear cool to my guests as well.

Secondly, its very well written.  Mionske does not just dwell on the body of law, but the history of cycling, and the book is filled with stories from the earliest days of cycling through the present day.   By providing the historical reasoning behind the law, as well as practical examples of its application, including commentary on many interesting lawsuits over the years, he keeps what could otherwise be a very dry topic interesting.

As someone who has been cycling for most of my life, I can recall being in many of the situations discussed in the book, and can certainly relate to the others.

Bob Mionske builds on the basic right to ride, establishing that, in fact, we do have a right to ride our bikes on the public roads in this country.  It spends quite a bit of time on anitcyclist bias and behavior, and works towards developing a recommended call to action around a Cyclists Bill of Rights, to formalize and nationalize a clear understanding of a cyclist’s right to ride.

There’s some great trivia in there as well, such as the date of the first recorded automobile/bike accident (May 30, 1896).

There are also some new words to work into my conversations, such as “scorcher”, someone who rides very fast and unsafe manner, and “velocipede” – the original name for this new-fangled machine we now call a bicycle.  I’ve “scorched” a bit myself over the years on my velocipede.    Velocipede sounds more at home in the animal kingdom than on the roads.    “I was out scorching today and ran over a velocipede.  Totally gross, it got caught up in my brake caliper.”

An important word I had never heard of before reading this book is “practicable,” which has some very important meaning with respect to riding.   I’ve often been shouted at for riding on the roads.  “Take a different road!” was the last one I heard.  This book not only provides concrete proof of a cyclists right to use the roadways, but also that a cyclists duty is to ride “as close to the right as practicable,” which means as close as is reasonable given the circumstances.  It doesn’t mean “as close to the right as possible,” or “as close to the right as practical.”   You don’t have to ride over unsafe terrain, such as potholes, puddles, or areas littered with glass.  You are allowed to ride as far left as you need to in order to ride safely.  Or, as far to the right as a “reasonable person” would.  That can always be a bit of a conundrum for me, as I have been called many things, but reasonable isn’t one of them.  Just ask my wife.   Or my kids.  But, I’m sure you know some reasonable people.  Ride as far to the right as they would.

Despite the wealth of knowledge in this book, the author says something disturbing – that the French invented the bicycle.   This apparently marks that last time that country contributed anything of value to the world.  Unfortunately, the early French bike frames were made of cheese, and while this resulted in a pretty plush ride, they tended to melt in the Summer.    Columbia – the American company – started using steel in their frames, and the rest is history.

As someone who lives bicycle law, Mionske’s depth of understanding of the issues confronting cyclists on a national scale is impressive.   He’s out of Portland, so many of his examples seem to stem from legal situations that Oregonian bike messengers find themselves in (beyond bankruptcy, drug arrests, and paternity issues), but there are plenty of examples and comparisons of different  laws from around the country, as well as a comparison of laws state-by-state.

I read some great practical advice in the book that I’ve used already.  I’ve often been frustrated by traffic lights that will not switch for me.  The sensor does not detect my bike, and I have no choice but to run the light.    I learned that in all 50 states, it’s actually legal to do so.   If you wait for a complete light cycle, and it the light still does not change, you can legally run the light (typically about three minutes).

He makes it clear that cyclists are required to abide by all of the same traffic laws as any other vehicle – the whole, “with rights come responsibilities” thing.  I wish more cyclists understood that they are required to obey traffic laws.

This is a book that I will keep as a reference – probably out on my coffee table to impress my friends.

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