Photo by bondidwhat on Flickr.

Reader David G. wonders what happens if someone causes a crash, but doesn’t actually hit anyone. He writes:

This morning [Tuesday] at approximately 8:30AM, I was riding south in the bicycle lane on 14th Street, NW. Almost immediately upon crossing P Street, a cab driver who had just picked up a fare, pulled suddenly into the bicycle lane, causing me to veer sharply in order to avoid being hit. Another cyclist, who was immediately behind me also veered to avoid being hit by the cab.

As we attempted to avoid the collision with the automobile, I and the other cyclist collided. I was able to stay upright, but the other cyclist fell to the ground, scraping her side and knee and damaging her bicycle. The cab driver attempted to pull away. Fortunately, another cyclist who witnessed the incident placed her bicycle in front of the cab to prevent the driver from doing so.

The police were called to the scene and, after interviewing the parties involved, informed us that there is no violation unless there is contact between the cab and the cyclist. As there was no contact in this case, he was unable to issue any sort of ticket to the driver of the cab. Respectfully, I informed him that I did not believe that that was the correct interpretation of the law and I asked that his sergeant be called to the scene. The sergeant arrived, interviewed us again and then informed us that the first officer on the scene was correct and that there was no violation.

Is this, in fact, the law? Is nobody liable for damage in this case?

The husband of the cyclist who blocked the cab from leaving, “jrenault,” posted on the BikeArlington forum about this. He said,

They’re arguing that surely “failure to yield” covers what the cabbie did, but not getting anywhere. ... Apparently, according to the police officer, failure to yield must be witnessed by the officer or he can’t write a ticket.

Other posters on BikeArlington suggest it might not be worth pursuing, not because the driver necessarily is blameless, but since nobody was seriously hurt, and it would be too much trouble to get the police to take action. It’s also possible there is no clear answer here, and no law that speaks to this situation clearly enough.

Shane Farthing from WABA said he couldn’t judge this specific incident without hearing more details, but had a broader comment about whether cyclists should want police to write tickets:

In many cases there will be some need for the officer to exercise discretion, such as whether an action was reckless or whether someone was passing too close under the circumstances. These elements are not all objectively defined. So while we want the roadways and laws to be predictable, there isn’t always an objective yes/no answer to whether an action is lawful, and it’s not always best for cyclists or anyone for officers to always default to issuing a citation.

We’ve seen several times in the past when an officer feels compelled to write a ticket, but doesn’t understand the law well enough, the default ends up being to cite the cyclist, rightly or wrongly. If police always write tickets after crashes, that might mean they learn more about the laws, or it might just mean cyclists get blamed more often even when not warranted.

Still, taxis need to watch for cyclists when pulling out across a bike lane. Near-misses happen every day. Small collisions happen occasionally. The fewer of those, the less likely a serious injury or worse.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.