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Death of Professional Cyclist Highlights Dangers of Road Biking

Personal injury attorney Lisa A. Galas considers the dangers of road biking after a professional cyclist is killed in Italy.

In a recent blog, we discussed the unique risks faced by motorcyclists who share the road with cars and trucks. Many of these same risks apply to bike riders, who lack even the limited protections associated with motorcycles, such as loud engine noise (to get the attention of car drivers) and the increased maneuverability of a motorcycle. In today’s blog, we consider whether the recent death of a professional cyclist in Italy offers lessons about the risks faced by bicyclists on American roads.

Table of Contents for this Blog

  • When Bikes and Cars Mix, Cyclists are Exposed
  • Professional Cyclist Dies in Car Accident
  • The Dangers of Biking in the U.S.
  • Helmets/Following Rules of the Road are Best Ways to Stay Safe
  • Injuries and Civil Damages Often Substantial in Bike Accident Cases

When Bikes and Cars Mix, Cyclists are Exposed

Car accidents are a common and serious occurrence, especially if you live in a state like Massachusetts. In recent years, traffic-related deaths have spiked, and more and more people have suffered life-altering personal injuries.

But when two cars collide with each other, the occupants of each vehicle are protected by thousands of pounds of metal around them, as well as numerous safety mechanisms like seatbelts, airbags, and crumble zones. Cars are made to withstand serious collisions and many innovations have been formulated to keep occupants safe.

Bicycles, on the other hand, are not. When a cyclist gets into an accident with a motor vehicle, they have little to no protection to keep them safe. In a collision with a car, a biker will typically come into direct contact with the outside of the other vehicle. The most that a biker can do to stay safe in a crash is wear a helmet. But when the accident is a serious one, that helmet rarely does much to change the result.

The danger and the lack of protection that bikers face was thrown into a harsh light recently when a professional Italian cyclist, Michele Scarponi, died in a crash with a delivery van at the age of 37.

Professional Cyclist Dies in Car Accident

The incident happened in Scarponi’s home town of Filottrano, Italy, on Saturday, April 22, 2017. Scarponi had just returned home after finishing fourth in the Tour of the Alps the day before. He had to jump right into training for his next race, the Giro d’Italia, which he had won in 2011. The morning after his return home, Scarponi left for a training ride, but he had not even left town before a delivery van collided with him in an intersection.

According to the initial police reports, the driver of the van did not notice Scarponi’s bike on the road, and pulled out into the intersection, failing to yield to the bicyclist who had the right of way. The van driver, a 57-year-old local of the town, was a friend of Scarponi’s family. He was not hurt in the collision.

The Dangers of Biking in the U.S.

In this country, about one out of every fifty car crashes involve a bicycle. However, only one out of every hundred trips are done on a bike, meaning cyclists are at a far higher risk of a crash than drivers. Worse, the injuries that are frequently sustained by a cyclist in a car accident are far more severe than those in a normal motor vehicle accident.

The death of Michele Scarponi highlights this fact, and just how dangerous it is to be a bicyclist. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 900 bikers were killed and another 494,000 were sent to the emergency room in 2013 alone, with injuries costing cyclists an estimated $10 billion in medical costs and wage losses. This is more than two deaths every day. Worse, those numbers have been on the rise over recent years, possibly because more people are using bikes to get to work in urban areas than they had in earlier years.

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, a group of researchers in England, a failure to look properly is the most common factor in a car crash involving a biker. Just like in the crash that led to Scarponi’s death, drivers rarely think to look for bikes while on the road. Coupled with the fact that it is often far harder to see bikes than it is to see cars because of their smaller size, it is no surprise that cyclists are in accidents so often.

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Helmets/Following Rules of the Road are Best Ways to Stay Safe

With the dangers that so many bike riders face on the roads of America, people may choose to avoid using a bicycle at all. Massachusetts, however, is one of the better states in the country for bikers, with only 1.4 cycling deaths per million residents between 2010 and 2012. This was far below the 5.7 annual deaths in Florida during the same time frame, though still significantly more than neighboring Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

One reason for this could be that riders in Massachusetts wear helmets more often than in many other states. No state has a universal bicycle helmet law, but Massachusetts is one of twenty-one states with a law which requires any person 16 years of age or younger to wear a helmet while operating a bicycle. MGL 85 s.11B. Most of the serious bike accidents involve a head injury, and helmets have been found to reduce the odds of these injuries by nearly half. While there is little that cyclists can do to protect themselves in a crash, wearing a helmet is one of the most important.

Another way to improve safety is to review the rules of the road and remember that bicyclists are subject to most of the same traffic laws and regulations that apply to motor vehicles. Despite this, it is a fairly common occurrence for bicyclists to ignore stop lights and stop signs. Part of the reason is a lack of awareness, given that cyclists aren’t required to pass a test or get a license before hitting the road. In addition, there is little enforcement of the law, and few societal expectations for bicyclists to follow these laws. Many people accept that a cyclist may not stop for the red light at an intersection.

However, just like motorists, bicyclists are required to yield to other vehicles that have the right of way, to signal turns, and maintain safe traveling distances. Many bicyclists may not know that when you are biking on the far-right side of a road with a right-turn only lane and intend to go straight, a bicyclist must yield to those cars that are turning right. Many motorists don’t know that when you park on the side of the road, you are required to check for approaching bicyclists before opening the door. Better awareness of these rules could prevent more tragedies.

It has always been important for bicyclists to follow the rules of the road, but with statistics showing an uptick in accidents, doing so might just save your life.

Injuries and Civil Damages Often Substantial in Bike Accident Cases

Because bike riders are so vulnerable, road accidents involving cyclists and cars frequently involve serious bodily injury or death, resulting in substantial civil damages. Examples of this include a January 2017 verdict for $600,000, after a Cambridge bike commuter was struck from behind by a van; an October 2016 Massachusetts verdict for $650,000, after an accident left a bike-riding doctor with amnesia and brain injuries; and a $3.5 million verdict in January 2015, after a Massachusetts bike rider riding in the marked bike lane was struck and seriously injured by a box truck driven by a man with a spotty driving record.

About the Author: Lisa A. Galas is a Massachusetts personal injury attorney who is of counsel for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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