The legislation would give bicyclists the right to argue fault in shades of gray with insurance companies and juries, giving them a greater shot at collecting damages. Supporters of the change call the current doctrine harsh, noting that when a bicyclist is struck and injured, if the rider is even 1 percent negligent, he or she is barred from recovering any damages.
“People are getting hurt every single day,” said Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “This will help hold everybody accountable to the injuries that happen.”
The vote comes two years after the bill was introduced. It brings the District a step closer to joining 46 states that have abandoned the standard known as contributory negligence in favor of a comparative negligence standard, which dictates how the responsibility for a collision would be shared between the parties involved.
Although the majority of the council had expressed support for the change, there was still uncertainty as recently as two weeks ago about the fate of the bill. On June 28, the council postponed a vote after a heated debate ignited by the disagreement centered on whether the law goes too far to give bicyclists and pedestrians the right to collect full damages, even if they are partially at fault in an accident.
In the end, officials said this week, the District wants to end the current practice, which they say is outdated and unfair and takes no account of the injuries that result when a bicyclist and a motorist collide.
The council needs to vote a second time on the bill before it becomes law. A final vote will be held when the council returns from summer recess in the fall. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has also voiced support for the bill.
The insurance industry has lobbied against the change, saying the law would have unintended consequences, including higher insurance premiums for D.C. residents. Some drivers could see their car insurance premiums go up by $600 annually, AAA told its members.
But supporters say the measure will enhance protections for the growing number of people who commute on foot and on two wheels. The District’s continued push for more bike infrastructure in recent years has led to a bike renaissance in the city, and with it a rising number of collisions involving cyclists. On average, 265 bicycle and 600 pedestrian collisions involving vehicles are reported to D.C. police each year, according to data from the D.C. Department of Transportation.
At least two cyclists have been critically injured in separate crashes in the past two weeks. The day the D.C. Council postponed action on the legislation, June 28, a woman on a Capital Bikeshare bike was struck and critically injured by a car south of Dupont Circle. On Saturday evening, a man riding on Benning Road in Southeast was struck by a vehicle and was taken to a hospital in critical condition, police said.
Beyond providing the financial relief for riders and pedestrians, Billing said, advocates also hope the change in law will serve as an economic incentive to make the streets safer, as drivers would have to be extra careful on the road to prevent crashes.
“Trying to make these streets safer is the ultimate goal,” Billing said. “We don’t want people hurt.”