Expanded Protections for DC Cyclists Only Go So Far

By Cory Bilton

Bike Lane Emblem

The DC metro area has a lot of drivers and a lot of cyclists, both using the same streets and roadways.  If you ride a bike in the area, you know that many motorists do not give bicyclists the same respect as another car.  Back when I worked on a tugboat, we might have called this the “law of tonnage” (the object that weighs more has the right of way).  Fortunately, the law of tonnage is not a real law; it is just an excuse that drivers of heavy vehicles (or tugboats) use to jokingly justify the failure to follow the real rules of the road.  Jokes aside, there are times when a motorist’s lack of respect for a bicyclist transcends carelessness and becomes intentional.  When a motorist uses his vehicle to intentionally hit, terrify, or harass a bicyclist, it is harmful, shameful, and illegal.

But what happens when the cyclist’s physical injuries and damage to her bike are relatively slight, even though the act that caused them was intentional?  Usually, nothing.  Small cases are sometimes not worth bringing, even if the act was outrageous.  The DC City Council recently passed the Access to Justice for Bicyclists Act of 2012 (“AJBA”) to enhance the remedies available to cyclists in DC.  The law, which became effective on January 18, 2013, provides cyclists that are the victim of a civil assault or battery by a motorist with statutory damages of at least $1,000 and the payment of attorneys’ fees.  What does this mean in English?  It means that if you are a cyclist in DC and the driver of a vehicle intentionally hits you, physically harasses you, or directs his road rage at you, you can get at least $1,000 and the cost of a lawyer.  So even if the harm to you was slight, it still might be worth your time (and your lawyer’s time).   If the resulting damage to your bike or the cost of your medical care exceeds $1,000, you can claim your actual damages (up to $10,000; if your damages are higher than this, the AJBA is no longer applicable).

As a matter of community policy, the AJBA is a clear win.  For motorists that think they can vent their road rage, physically threaten, or play “chicken” with cyclists, the AJBA provides that even if the injury or damage is slight, the cost is going to be at least $1,000 plus attorney’s fees.  The DC government has a strong interest in promoting cycling in the area (community benefits are outlined in the city’s Bicycle Master Plan), and in the last few years, seems to be motivated to increase the use of bicycles (e.g. the explosive growth of the Capital Bikeshare program, new bike lanes on L Street and N Street, to name a few instances).  While there are already many seasoned cyclists in the area, there are lots of people who are currently on the fence about using a bicycle as a regular form of transportation.  Laws such as the AJBA do two things: (1) encourage people to use bikes as regular transportation by offering cyclists greater protections, and (2) let motorists know, in unequivocal terms, that cyclists must be treated with respect on the road.

For all of the positive things going for it, there are some legal barriers that make me think the AJBA will be rarely used.  The most significant is that the AJBA only applies to intentional acts, not negligent acts (for example, a motorist carelessly hitting a bicyclist).  Intentional acts are often not covered by a motorist’s car insurance.  Without insurance coverage, the motorist would be required to pay the judgment or verdict out of his own pocket.  In some instances, a road-raging motorist may be able to pay.  But a motorist may also have no personal assets or money with which to pay a judgment; effectively, a “judgment-proof” defendant.  It may not be worth pursuing a judgment-proof defendant even with the enhanced remedies provided by the AJBA.

The lack of insurance coverage for intentional acts also means that the insurer will not provide the defendant with a lawyer.  This is one of those hidden benefits of car insurance that most people don’t realize exists; not only does the insurance company pay for any damage you cause, but they also hire a lawyer to represent you at no cost to you (other than the premiums you’ve already paid).  Without free representation, a motorist must either pay for a lawyer himself, or defend himself without a lawyer.  Either decision would have a significant impact on the outcome of the victim’s case.

Ultimately, time will tell whether the AJBA becomes a useful recourse for cyclists or whether it just gathers dust in the law library.  I hope that lawyers in the area begin take opportunities to use it, so that we can develop a better understanding of how effectively the law helps local cyclists.  If it convinces more people to ride in the District, it will have done a good job.

Please read my disclaimer.