At the recent pedestrian and bicycle safety enforcement hearing, several people related stories about police misapplying laws and writing erroneous tickets after a crash. Coupled with DC’s “contributory negligence” law, that can leave a victim unable to get their medical bills paid.
Each of the four witnesses below was riding a bicycle and was hit by a driver. In 3 of the 4 cases, the police didn’t talk to the cyclist, didn’t talk to witnesses, or had errors in the police report.
This is very significant because DC, Maryland, and Virginia are 3 of 5 states with contributory negligence laws, where the victim in a crash can’t collect any money in a civil action if they are even the tiniest bit at fault (with some convoluted exceptions).
That means that if the investigating officer decides to just give a small ticket to each party, for instance, the cyclists gets shut out of any ability to collect medical expenses from the driver’s insurance company.
Tracy Hadden Loh faced this very problem when a driver hit her from behind:
Brian Bargh was doored by someone getting out of a taxi, but the police officer wrote Bargh a ticket, misapplying the law.
Police never bothered to interview Douglas Kandt and blamed him.
Not all officers get the law wrong. When they get it right, a good police report can help the victim get the medical compensation they need.
Stories like these are why WABA has emphasized changing the contributory negligence standard. Every state except Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and the District use some form of “comparative negligence” as their standard instead.
All allow, at the very least, a victim who’s more than 51% at fault to collect damages proportional to their fault. A cyclist deemed 10% at fault for a crash with a taxi, like many of the stories above, could collect 90% of their costs from the taxi driver.
DC should adopt a similar standard, at least for crashes involving “vulnerable road users” like people on foot and on bikes. There’s some concern that changing the law entirely would create repercussions in minor “fender bender” crashes between two cars, or slip-and-fall incidents in a store.
Therefore, one proposal is to keep the current contributory standard for those cases, but switch to comparative negligence in crashes between a motor vehicle and a person walking, biking, or otherwise not protected by tons of steel. The DC Council should consider and pass such legislation as soon as possible.