Putting Your Foot Down: Part 1

Stopping at a red light is never optional when you’re in a car. But on a bike, it doesn’t always seem necessary to wait at lights — maybe the intersection’s clear, or there’s a “walk” sign in the direction you’re heading, or whatever.

This probably doesn’t need to be said, but running red lights on a bike is illegal. Specifically, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 89, Section 9 forbids it.

That’s a terrific reason not to do it, but in my opinion it’s not the most important one. The #1 reason has to do with your bank account.

To explain, I’m gonna get a little technical — so bear with me.

There’s a legal doctrine called “negligence per se”. It basically means that if the tortfeasor (the person who caused the injury) was violating a law meant to protect the public at the time of the injury, he can be automatically considered negligent.

So, how does this translate to bike law? Say a motorist is driving on the sidewalk and hits a pedestrian. The pedestrian can skip some steps in proving that the driver was responsible for her injuries. She just needs to show that there’s a law that’s in place to prevent accidents like hers, and that the driver was violating it when he injured her.

Negligence per se is big part of how the 2009 Bicycle Safety Law (partially illustrated on the back of my cards) empowers bikers in Massachusetts. It makes it a million times easier for bikers to prove responsibility for an accident — essentially, it levels the playing field.

The fact that dooring someone now carries a fine of up to $100 isn’t significant because of the amount of the fine; a $1 fine would work just as well! It’s important because, under the doctrine of negligence per se, the fine itself means that the biker can more easily demonstrate that the driver is responsible.

Unfortunately for red-light-running cyclists, negligence is a two-way street. If you’re violating a law when you get hit, negligence per se makes it much simpler to find that you are partially at fault for the accident. Even if the driver is clearly responsible, in Massachusetts you could be barred from recovery if it can be shown that by breaking the law, you’re more than half at fault for the accident.

You’d be left with a mangled bike and thousands of dollars in hospital bills, just because you got hit while breaking a law that police hardly ever enforce.

I really don’t mean this as a guilt trip; I just want you to know the deal. Continue to carefully run red lights all over the city, if that’s how you roll.

But now you know what exactly you’re risking when you do.


IMAGE via flickr

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