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In December, a Portland judge ruled in favor of a motorist who turned right in an intersection and subsequently hit a cyclist who was in, and therefore proteceted by, a bike lane — or so the cyclist, and everyone else involved, thought.

In the report we first read about on BikePortland.org:

When Portlander Rob Daray witnessed a right-hook collision on his commute home last summer he thought it was obvious who was at fault. So did the police officer who cited the operator of the motor vehicle for “failure to yield to a bicycle.” Even the woman driving the car admitted she made an abrupt right turn without checking her blind spots.

But when the case came up in traffic court, the judge came to a different conclusion and now Mr. Daray and others familiar with this are worried that people who ride bicycles are vulnerable — not just on the street, but in the legal system as well.

On June 10th, Mr. Daray was riding his bicycle eastbound on SE Hawthorne Blvd just before 5:00 pm when he looked up and saw a gray Toyota Prius turn right onto SE 10th. The Prius, driven by Ellen Metz, collided with a woman on a bicycle who was traveling in the same direction. The woman on the bike was Carmen Piekarski a cartographer who works for the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. She was thrown from her bike and sustained serious road rash and is still in physical therapy for a shoulder injury.

The biking community, along with others, is of course outraged at the ruling. We and other lawyers have chimed in as well. It is amazing that cyclists, pedestrians, lawmakers, police – even drivers – have learned the law and accept it as second nature. Portland police have made videos highlighting the classic right hook, what the law says about, what drivers and cyclists are supposed to do in such a situation, and then safety precautions each should take to prevent an accident. But when an accident does happen, the law is supposed to be on the side of the "vulnerable user" (i.e., the cyclist).

Instead, what the judge has done is muddled what so many had worked so hard to cement in everyone’s minds as not only safe but adherent to law.

ORS 811.050 states that:

A person commits the offense of failure of a motor vehicle operator to yield to a rider on a bicycle lane if the person is operating a motor vehicle and the person does not yield the right of way to a person operating a bicycle, electric assisted bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, moped, motor assisted scooter or motorized wheelchair upon a bicycle lane.

A bicycle lane is defined as "that part of the highway, adjacent to the roadway, designated by official signs or markings for use by persons riding bicycles except as otherwise specifically provided by law."

And as anyone can see, not even car lanes continue through most intersections. Therefore, if we were to take the ruling as law – or fact – then that would mean the intersection could in essence be the one area not covered by law. It would be pandmonium. What is not stated explicitly in the law is understood by common sense.

We think the law is clear.

Ruling aside, this incident has reminded us that even if the law is on our side, cyclists are, like it or not, vulnerable in traffic. So we want to take this opportunity to remind everyone of some very important safety precautions.

Cyclists:

  • Never assume a motorist sees you. Obey the laws of traffic and try to make eye contact or communicate through hand signals, but never, ever take for granted that a car is supposed to stop for you. Give yourself plenty of distance, and even if you think you are safe, take one more glance around you to ensure someone is not coming at you.
  • Even though this accident happened in the peak of summer, when the weather was warm and the sun was shining, every cyclist should wear the recommended safety gear: reflective and/or bright-colored clothing, lights in the front and back of the bike, and of course, a helmet.

Motorists:

  • You have the responsibility as the bigger and faster vehicle operator to practice due care. When you have the weight and power of a car on your side, you also have an obligation to smaller and slower cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings and watch for cyclists, especially at intersections. It makes sense. While cyclists are in a bike lane or sometimes on a sidewalk the one place, or most likely place, the two of you will converge is at an intersection. Be especially careful here.
  • Slow down.
  • Check your blind spot. Twice, if you have to.
  • If an accident does occur, stop, assist the victim, and exchange any contact and insurance information.

According to an update, the cyclist, Carmen Piekarski, still cannot move her arm to its full extent without pain and cracking. And she has decided against a civil lawsuit.

We have laws put in place for a reason, but that reason is not to exclude citizens from individual responsibility. We all share the road, and we all have the right to safety.

2 Comments

  1. Gravatar for Terry Harrigan

    Today shows that the battle is far from over. While the doc in LA got 5 years, this driver, admitting fault, was still found not guilty. It's clear the hit or miss state laws are not doing their part to protect their citizens. Maybe it's time to deal with this at a national level.

  2. Gravatar for Sean DuBois

    You're absolutely right, Terry. We just posted the story about the L.A. doctor on our website. Each example represents two sides of the spectrum. In one, there seemed to be no question about the law - yet the cyclist was punished. In the other, there still seems to be some question as to who had the right of way, but thankfully that did not excuse the doctor for such a horrible act - and was punished for it.

    In Portland, we tend to forget that just because we are known for our cycling community and have even enacted the "vulnerable user" laws, we still have a long way to go - here and on the national level. It's disheartening to see all the pains so many have gone through to pass laws, educate people, and then enforce those laws. So when something like this happens we take more than 2 steps (or revolutions?) back. It would be nice to see the judge uphold the laws everyone else seems to comprehend.

    The biggest challenge won't be changing the law, it will be changing the way people think. And it's something we need to do collectively.

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