A car door swings open and a passing cyclist hits it.
A car comes abreast of a bike rider and makes a right turn. They collide.
A car overtaking a cyclist clips the rider from behind.
Who is at fault?
In the District, the police are often confused, and when they are they tend to get it wrong.
Too often, bike advocates have testified, police have cited cyclists after car-door collisions in which the rider violated no law. They have invoked a “riding abreast” law to ticket cyclists who collide with right-turning cars, although that law applies only to bikes riding side by side.
“We’ll frequently see citations for illegal passing or hazardous driving or riding abreast, none of which apply [to the circumstances], and the cyclist is doing exactly what they should be doing,” said Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “But because the officer may not be familiar with the way the laws apply to a bicyclist, then they cite the bicyclist.”
A police citation may prevent a cyclist from being compensated for injuries from a crash, he said.
Farthing was among those who testified before a D.C. Council committee hearing on cycling in February. The committee chairman, Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), passed on the testimony to the complaints board. The four-member board — which includes Patrick A. Burke, an assistant police chief — delivered a nine-page report on the subject to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier on Thursday. Mendelson has scheduled a Nov. 2 hearing to revisit the subject.
“I’m really happy to see that they’ve taken this seriously and that they’ve really dug into the issue and referred it over so that the police, hopefully, can do the same,” Farthing said. “This is a finding of real systemic problems, so I hope that empowers Councilman Mendelson to go further in demanding accountability. ”
Bicycling has become an increasingly popular mode of transportation and recreation in the District, encouraged by the expansion of dedicated bike lanes from three miles in 2000 to a network of 50 miles. More than 25 percent of District households do not own a car.
The complaints board recommended that officers be allowed to delay submission of their accident reports until they have interviewed the cyclist, who sometimes ends up in a hospital after colliding with a car; that accident report forms be revised to provide more accurate options; that officers receive additional training and testing on bike laws; and that the police department strengthen its partnership with the District’s Bicycle Advisory Council.
The police department “should change its method of investigating bicycle-motor vehicle crashes in order to provide appropriate safeguards for bicyclists who are injured,” the board said in its report.
The board also recommended that officers ticket drivers who stop or park in bike lanes.
The D.C. Council also has under consideration a measure that has won approval in other cities that gives bicyclists the right to take a driver to civil court to recover damages for harassment, assault and battery. The bill received particular attention after an Aug. 31 incident, recorded on video, in which the driver of a pickup truck allegedly harassed and then struck a cyclist. The police department used the video to track down the driver, but no charges were brought.
John B. Townsend II of AAA said the board’s recommendations made sense. “There needs to be a greater sensitivity not only with law enforcement but also with motorists,” Townsend said. “The people who ride bicycles are as much entitled to the road as is anyone else.”