Insurance, licenses, helmets, and traffic law changes are among the issues that must be addressed immediately.
*Note: on the web site Medium, this is a collaborative post where readers are invited to weigh in with commentary and suggestions, in addition to my proposed reforms (icons along the right margin of the Medium web site should allow this).
1. Mandatory (or at least optional) insurance requirements. The fact that most bicyclists are uninsured is a gaping hole in the ability for accident victims to recover when they sustain injuries. Many pedestrians have been seriously wounded or even killed by bicyclists.
As a personal injury lawyer, I often represent bicyclists as Plaintiffs when they are injured by motor vehicles, I also ocassionally sue bicyclists for striking pedestrians. However, unless the bicyclists are employed by a messenger service or restaurant, whereby they are in the scope of employment while making deliveries (and thus covered by the employer’s insurance), there can often be little ability to recover any verdict award from a leisure bicyclist’s personal assets.
The Citibike program already charges user fees for riders to utilize the service. Like Zipcar, the car sharing program where insurance is automatically included, the Citibike fee should include the cost of insurance for any accidents. It seems unclear as to whether it does, but this should certainly be a mandatory component for allowing access to the “Citibike” bicycles.
The further question is then whether the state should also require insurance for all bicyclists, or at least make it available. Such insurance is often difficult to obtain— not always easily tethered to a renter’s or homeowner’s policy and rarely independently available (though this may change). In any event, this all leads to the next issue.
2. Should bicyclists be licensed? This issue cuts a few ways. Along with a requirement (or at least an option) for insurance coverage, another issue is whether bicyclists should be licensed and/or be required to have small license plates posted on their frames. If plates were required, traffic cameras could then capture them with respect to cyclists who violate traffic laws,cause motor vehicle accidents, or are wanted in police investigations. Any bicycle without a plate could immediately be pulled over to enforce the rule, such as with motor vehicles presently.
If a license simply came in tandem with the purchase of insurance, the system could work rather seamlessly. However, the more requirements imposed to obtain the license (such as a biking test or a written test on the rules of the road), the greater the chance of creating scofflaws. Restaurant delivery workers, especially, are at the highest risk to flout such a law, as these workers are often undocumented in our immigration system. That being said, basic tests such as providing proof of a most recent eye and/or hearing exam, and proof of insurance in order to obtain the license would be helpful.
A separate issue would then be whether the owner of the bicycle would be required to have the license / insurance, or the rider of the bicycle, or both. Most restaurants require their workers to bring their own bike to and from the job, and these bicycles are often previously stolen and sold to the workers in a black market. There might need to be a further crackdown on these unseemly elements in order to make the whole program work, or a law mandating the restaurant provide license plates / insurance to its restaurant workers.
3. Create helmet requirements / “helmet share” programs. Citibike does not provide helmets to its riders. Though helmets are not a requirement for those over age 14, with many new cyclists on the road posing as potential accident victims, this creates a worrisome trend for personal injury lawyers like myself. Do we represent a cyclist with a severe head injury, where the accident was clearly someone else’s fault but the damages could have been easily mitigated had the victim worn a helmet? A flood of new litigation along these lines seems likely, and unnecessary.
The position of pro-cycling groups such as Transportation Alternativesis that a helmet requirement would be impractical and/or pose health concerns.
But if our cities are now at the point where we can erect self-cleaning public restrooms, is a self-cleaning “helmet share” that far off? The option should at least somehow be provided to cyclists as part of the Citibike program.
4. Amend the Vehicle and Traffic Law to be more realistic. According to New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law, “bicyclists are granted all of the rights and are subject to all of the duties of the driver of a motor vehicle.” Technically, bicyclists must therefore stop at every red light, exactly like all other vehicles on the roadway.
The elephant in the room is that it is impractical for bicyclists to stop at every red light. Yet there are still many large, dangerous intersections where stopping fully, and abiding by the VTL, is warranted.
A discussion needs to take place whereby the VTL might be amended to be more realistic and in accordance with a cyclists’ experiences. The following scenarios should be considered for cyclists to “use their discretion:”
(a) Crossing the intersection of a one-way roadway controlled by only by a stop sign.
(b) Crossing the intersection of a one-way roadway controlled by a standard traffic light.
Allowing cyclists to “use their discretion” in one or both of the above-mentioned scenarios, while more vigorously enforcing the need for cyclists to stop at more complex and/or dangerous intersections (and also enforcing the prohibition of bicycling against the flow of vehicle traffic) would go a long way to ushering bicyclists into greater respect and compliance with the law.
While bike sharing programs present exciting opportunities for a new vibrancy in the fabric of the urban experience, issues such as insurance, licenses, helmets, and traffic law changes need to be addressed. Such reforms should apply not just to bike share programs, but possibly for all bicyclists in general.
Matthew Taub is a writer and lawyer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of “Death of the Dying City,” a novel.