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D.C. bill would make it easier for cyclists, pedestrians to collect damages

Advocates for cyclists and pedestrians rallied Thursday morning in support of a D.C. bill that would make it easier for cyclists to collect damages when they’re injured in collisions with vehicles.

Current law recognizes contributory negligence, meaning that if the cyclist or pedestrian is found to be 1 percent at fault in a crash, he or she cannot recover damages.

The legislation, which is up for a vote in a D.C. Council committee on Friday, would end the contributory negligence standard in favor for a comparative negligence scheme. Although the change has great support from the cycling community and other transportation advocates, insurers’ groups say they are concerned about the impact it would have on insurance costs.

Council member Tommy Wells, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety said the change is long overdue, but acknowledged the bill is unlikely to advance out of committee — this is the third time it has been introduced.

“This bill will likely meet the fate of all the others where the insurance lobby has been able to work the council members to get them to vote against it,” Wells said at a Thursday morning news conference. “It takes a more popular uprising to say that voters are more important than money.”
The bill’s sponsor, Council member David Grosso (D-At-Large), said he still hopes the five-member committee will vote in favor of the legislation, but he said he was already prepared to reintroduce the measure in January.

Supporters say the District and four other states are the only remaining jurisdictions in the nation with the “outdated and unjust negligence standard.” When introduced, the bill only covered cyclists, but since its September hearing, it has been expanded to also cover pedestrians and people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs.

“Fairness, safety and equity are the basic principles of this legislation,” Grosso said. “This amendment significantly enhances the bill, adding a needed layer of protection for those residents who rely on alternate means of transportation to get around the city.”

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association says the bill is “desperately needed,” especially as the number of bike commuters continues to grow in the District. Recent census data suggests that 4.5 percent of working D.C. residents commute by bicycle and 13.6 percent walk to work.

“It is well past time for D.C. to join the majority of states in bringing fairness to the legal system for vulnerable roadway users,” said Shane Farthing, WABA’s executive director.

Farthing said the current law does not work in today’s transportation environment and in a city that encourages people to bike, walk or use public transportation to get around.

“Our city, our leaders can’t support a program… where we get people out of the cars, on the bikes, on their feet, walking around and then when something goes wrong and they get hit they maintain this unjust, unfair legal system that intentionally blames the victim and denies claims, leaving them injured and uncompensated,” he said.

WABA is launching a voting record scorecard with this bill, he said. The group wiill be sending an e-mail tomorrow to thousands its members and supports reporting how each committee member voted.
(The Washington Post has contacted offices of the other four committee members to ask whether they support the bill, but as of this posting had heard back from them.)

Martha Dye, 47, a bike commuter who was injured last year while riding on Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW, said she would be disappointed if the bill dies in committee. When she was hit in February of last year, the insurance company denied her compensation for the injuries she suffered.

“I had the green light, I was in the crosswalk and the car turned right anyway, and hit me and I was hurt,” she said. “I had some nice-looking bruises and my bike was messed up and it cost me several hundred dollars. I went through the process with the insurance company and they said no.”

In a letter, the insurance company told Dye, “Your actions, proceeding when it was not safe to do so, contributed to this loss. In the absence of legal liability, we would not be justified in making settlement. Therefore, we must deny payment of this claim.”

“It is absurd– here I am with the green light and hit by a car and they say there is no liability,” she said. “This needs to change. It is always the pedestrians and the cyclists that are losing out because we are the ones that get hurt in those situations.”

The American Insurance Association says the change is unnecessary and would result in significant cost increases to D.C. drivers.

“There is likely to be a significant cost impact to D.C. drivers, taxpayers, businesses, and the government itself,” said Eric M. Goldberg, vice president of the association.

The association says that auto insurers settle and pay bicyclist claims all the time and that changing the law will result higher premiums for drivers– and could potentially encourage some drivers to drop their insurance.

“In D.C., around one in five drivers is already uninsured,” the group said. “Economically disadvantaged people are most impacted by increases in auto insurance prices – they would be the most likely to drop coverage when it becomes unaffordable. Having more insured drivers benefits everyone.”

Some D.C. residents also oppose the legislation, saying the District should instead address the rising conflicts on the road by enforcing traffic laws fairly among drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

“What I do feel needs to be addressed is for cyclists and pedestrians alike to learn to respect and obey the rules of the road,” said Jennifer White who lives in Ward 4. She said she often encounters pedestrians blocking cars and cyclists drifting through red lights, not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, riding the center lanes to avoid sitting in traffic and failing to use hand signals to alert a vehicle that they are turning right.

“They act like they own the road,” she said. “If we are all expected to share the road, then we should all be expected to obey the rules or face the consequences.”