DC’s Police Complaint Board Issues MPD Report Card on Bicycle Accidents

By Cory Bilton

Bike Lane Interchange

In working with injured cyclists, we see a number of recurring scenarios in bicycle accidents in the DC area.  When a bicycle-motor vehicle collision occurs, at least one person involved usually does not know how the rules of the road (e.g. the law) apply to cyclists.  This ignorance of the law often manifests itself in a presumption that the cyclist must have done something wrong.  The result is that in the aftermath of the collision, the cyclist is treated as having caused the collision, even when this is not the case.  Unfortunately, this game of “blame the cyclist” often extends to police officers that respond to the scene of a collision.

Recently, the DC Office of Police Complaints released a report on MPD’s enforcement of bicycle laws (which I’ll call the “Bicycle Report”).  The Bicycle Report provides a snap shot of the investigative practices of MPD officers in bicycle-motor vehicle crashes.  From both the Bicycle Report and the DC DOT’s Bike Program Fact Sheet, we can draw a few conclusions about these types of collisions in the District:

Bicycle Accidents are on the Rise

The most recent Bike Program Fact Sheet (released in Summer 2012) shows that in 2010, there were 435 bicycle crashes in DC, which was the most recent data provided.   But the Bicycle Report details that MPD produced 1,198 bicycle-motor vehicle crash reports from January 2011 to November 2012.  Although the Bicycle Report does not break this number down by year, I think it’s safe to conclude (given the trend since 2006), that collisions between bicycles and motor vehicles are up at least 35-40% from 2010 to 2012.  This most likely corresponds to an increase in the number of cyclists in the DC area in the last few years.  However, it highlights the fact that fair enforcement of the rules of the road and accurate reporting of collisions are a growing concern in the area.

MPD Is Inconsistent in Recording the Cyclist’s Recollection of the Collision

The Bicycle Report selected a random sample of 120 from the 1,198 crash reports to do a more thorough review.  The report concludes that in 76 of the 120 crash reports, the cyclist was interviewed at the scene.  So about 63% of the time, the officer talks with and records what the cyclist says after a collision involving a car.  The Bicycle Report later states that these interviews “typically involved bike riders who suffered either no injuries or minor injuries.”  What about the other 37% of the time?  The Bicycle Report says that in 42 of 120 crash reports, it was either unclear or ambiguous whether the officer had spoken with the cyclist or the officer was unable to speak with the cyclist (which might occur, for example, when the cyclist leaves the scene by ambulance, although police officers are supposed to go to the hospital when this occurs).  Although it is notoriously difficult to determine the severity of injuries from MPD crash reports, the Bicycle Report’s findings imply that the collisions where cyclists suffer more significant injuries are the same crash reports that show no evidence that the cyclist was interviewed.

MPD Never Performs Supplemental Investigation in Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Collisions

As the Bicycle Report notes, “if an officer obtains additional information after submitting the report, the officer is required to submit the supplemental information on a PD 252” (basically, a separate report).  Of the 120 reports that were randomly selected for review, none (as in, zero) had a PD 252.  “MPD also conducted its own search for PD 252s, but could not find any.”  So the takeaway is that if the investigation doesn’t happen immediately, it’s not going to happen.  Again, this is more likely to affect an injured cyclist who is taken from the scene by ambulance.

Fortunately, it appears that there is reason to hope that change is in the works. First, to quote Justice Brandeis, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  It is good that the Office of Police Complaints is specifically reviewing the work of law enforcement in bicycle-motor vehicle collisions.  There is a suggestion to create an annual report specifically on bicycle-motor vehicle collisions that would help build a baseline to improve our local policies.  Second, the MPD is apparently engaging with the DC Bicycle Advisory Council (BAC), which is tasked with advising the DC government on bicycle-related matters.  The Bicycle Report says that the BAC has seen unprecedented interest from MPD lately.  Third, the Bicycle Report states that the MPD is receptive to improving bicycle safety in DC by providing more officer training, bike-mounted patrols, and encouraging better reporting after collisions.  I think all of these efforts could lead to improvement in the accuracy of MPD crash reports.  An inaccurate or one-sided police report dramatically decreases the likelihood that you will obtain a fair settlement without litigation.  This is the last thing you want while trying to recover from being hit by a car.

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