Cycling safety: What happens when cyclists break the rules

By Mike Headrick and Linda Williams
May 1st, 2013 @ 10:15pm

Source: KSL.com

SALT LAKE CITY — Cycling safety is a big concern in the state of Utah. Hundreds of new riders are hitting the streets to save on gas, improve the air and get in a good workout.

But a KSL News investigation discovered some cyclists are breaking the law — time and again — and riding away scott free even when they hurt someone else.

Bicyclists blowing the stop

“It’s a danger. It’s a hazard. They’re coming down 30, 40 miles an hour; and if they hit a kid, or an adult for that matter, it would do damage to both,” said Jennifer Hawkes, a mother who lives in Emigration Canyon.

Every day she stands in the road to block bicyclists as her two young children get on and off the school bus.

“I would rather get hit then my child,” she said.

She said her son was boarding the bus last fall when a cyclist rode so close, he or she hit the boy’s backpack and kept on going.

I would rather get hit then my child.

–Jennifer Hawkes

“The lights are flashing and the stop sign’s out, and they blow through the stop sign,” she said.

The bus drivers say it gets so out of hand they have to take special precautions whenever they see the bikes. They hold kids back from getting off the bus, give them special signals; and if a rider blows by, the drivers honk their horns.

“They usually just drive past and flip me the bird,” said bus driver Chris Eisert.

Eisert has driven Emigration Canyon for years and says while most cyclists are courteous, there are some who’ve broken the law for years.

“They travel very fast,” he said. “At any time they could hit one of the kids.”

To see how bad the problem was, KSL followed the bus up and down the canyon, before and after school. Sure enough, cyclist after cyclist — seven in all — rode right by the bus when its lights were on and its stop sign out.

Had the cyclists been ticketed, their fines would have been anywhere from $100 to $500 a piece, according to the Utah Driver Handbook.

However, representatives from the Unified Police Department said in the last five year’s they’ve only issued one ticket to a cyclist in the canyon. Lt. Justin Hoyal said they can’t cite someone if they don’t see a violation.

“Very few bicyclists have passed the school bus when our officers have been present,” Hoyal said. “They’re not going to pass it when you’ve got the marked police car behind the bus.”

A little kid getting hit by a bicycle going 10, 20 miles an hour is going to be probably just about as bad as being hit by a car.

–Lt. Justin Hoyal

That police car began following the bus after residents complained. It’s not there every day, but sometimes.

KSL happened to be there the day that officer stopped a cyclist for rolling the red. The officer gave him a warning and tried to explain the danger but the cyclist made the safety issue about himself.

“A little kid getting hit by a bicycle going 10, 20 miles an hour is going to be probably just about as bad as being hit by a car,” the officer said.

“Just out of curiosity, have there been more problems with bicycles not stopping or cars aggression towards cyclists?” the cyclist asked.

“On my way up here I had cars buzz by me within a matter of feet, and I feel that would be a lot more dangerous of an issue,” he said.

The law states motorists must give cyclists 3 feet of space. It also says all bicycles are vehicles and their riders must obey all traffic laws — including stopping for the school bus and yielding to pedestrians. The reason is cyclists travel fast, often close to 40 miles per hour or more in Emigration Canyon. At those high speeds a collision with a pedestrian could be devastating.

Bicycle-pedestrian collisions

In the past two years, cyclists in San Francisco hit and killed two people walking on the street. Both riders ran red lights. Both were charged with varying degrees of vehicular manslaughter.

Orem resident, Emily Bates, knows what it’s like to get hit.

“I was running along…and then the next thing I knew I was on the ground,” she said. “There was blood everywhere.”

The police report said a cyclist “hit her from behind” and that Bates “hit her head on the ground and possibly lost consciousness.” The rider wasn’t hurt.

“The ambulance came, and the police were there. There were a lot of sirens and flashing lights,” Bates said. “I got nine staples in my head from where…his helmet hit me just straight on.”

The gash, she said, looked “like a star shape, like an explosion.” Bates wound up with a severe concussion and memory loss. As for the medical bills, well, they just keep on coming.

I was surprised to find there was no citation. He wasn’t considered at fault.

–Emily Bates

“All together, if you count what the insurance paid, it’s close to five thousand or six thousand dollars,” she said. “Out of pocket it was still close to two thousand dollars.”

Bates went to the police for answers and was stunned to read the report— “No charges filed.”

“I was surprised to find there was no citation. He wasn’t considered at fault,” said Bates. “In a car if you hit someone from behind then the person from behind is at fault. So that’s why I thought he would be at fault.”

Cyclist citations

In a survey of more than a dozen police departments across Utah, more than half said they had no way of tracking citations written to cyclists. The rest had issued just a handful of tickets. Unified Police said right now, it’s focusing more on educating riders rather than penalizing them.

Get a free copy of the “Utah Bicycle Accident Handbook

Click here to receive a free hard copy of the “Utah Bicycle Accident Handbook – 2nd Edition” by Christensen & Hymas. You will also get a link to download the digital version.

“We have issued a citation to a bicyclist up here (Emigration Canyon) and it is something we can do. However, most of the time we’ve been trying to educate,” said Hoyal.

“When a cyclist fails to share the road and abide by their obligations under the law there should be consequences for that,” said Russell Hymas, attorney with Christensen & Hymas.

He generally represents cyclists in lawsuits, and has written a book all about the rights and responsibilities of Utah riders. He says one of the biggest concerns is who pays when a cyclist is to blame.

“In many instances cyclists are not carrying insurance to cover their actions and if somebody is injured it would likely be a claim that they would make against the individual,” he said.

The trouble is if a cyclist can’t or won’t pay for the damages the person they hit gets stuck with the bill. It’s exactly what happened to Emily Bates.

“I felt like I paid all the health consequences. I paid all the lost work,” she said.

Hymas said he always advises riders to look at their current insurance policies to see if they cover cycling. It’s not widely available, he said, but you should get cycling insureance

“Cyclists are still concerned about, ‘Well, I’m not immune from mistakes, and if I do make a mistake I would like to have a safety net of insurance coverage that could help to cover me … so that I’m not exposed to personal liability for any damages,'” Hymas said.

Road responsibility

He and Bates — both cyclists themselves — say riders have a responsibility to follow the laws and respect others on the road, just as cyclists want drivers to respect them.

“You have to protect the more vulnerable person on the chain,” Bates said. “So if the car is paying attention to the bike, and the bike is paying attention to the pedestrian, and we are all responsible for what we do ourselves, the whole community is a lot safer.”

Hymas said it all boils down to understanding each group’s rights and responsibilities under the law.

Again, Utah code says motorists must give cyclists 3 feet of space or slow down until the rider has the chance to move safely to the right side of the road. They must also share the lane if a bicyclist needs to pass another vehicle, turn left or avoid unsafe conditions — like rocks or potholes — on the shoulder of the road or in the bike lane.

Never, under any circumstance, is it OK to force the cyclist aside or run them off the road.

Cyclists, in turn, must stop at all stop signs and lights. They may only ride two across and only if they are not blocking traffic. If they are, they must ride single file.

In some cities and counties, like Salt Lake County, it is illegal to ride a bike without first registering it with the police. In most cases bicycle registrations cost $1.

Both parties must use the proper signals while turning and both must yield to pedestrians.

“Unfortunately, there still is that small percentage of motorists and small percentage of cyclists that sometimes fan the flames of animosity between the two groups,” he said. “Hopefully, the majority will help to work on solutions to share the road better.”

If you have an investigation tip please email us at investigate@ksl.com or call 801-575-HELP (4356).

Thursday night on a special edition of KSL News from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., KSL will introduce you to some people trying to make the roads safer for everyone. Learn about the statewide bicycle tour promoting nothing but respect on Utah’s roads, and the new high-tech tool from the Utah Department of Public Safety that will make biking around Utah safer and easier than ever before.

Also, tune in Thursday morning to KSL 5 News Today, where we will walk you through the rules cyclists need to follow – and tell you the five things you need to know before you go on your next ride.