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The gentle breeze, the smell of spring flowers, the smug satisfaction of passing gridlocked cars filled with angst-ridden commuters -- what's not to like about commuting by bike?
OK, maybe those close calls at the intersection or a particularly long uphill stretch. Gear heads know that pedaling to work rivals the benefits of that morning cup of coffee or occasional trip to the gym, but the savvy bike commuter also needs to know the rules of the road.
So in honor of National Bike to Work Week, we at FindLaw offer our two cents on the legal aspects of bicycling in a car-dominated world.
The Cycling Masses
If you've been biking to work for a while, you may have noticed a steady increase in pedal traffic over the years. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of U.S. workers commuting by bicycle (PDF) has increased by roughly 60 percent over the past decade. The Northeast, college towns, and larger cities in general saw the biggest gains.
But let's not kid ourselves. Those driving a car, truck, or van to work still comprise 86.2 percent of the population, followed by users of public transportation, telecommuters... and then bicyclists at 0.6 percent. It's still an automobile-driver's world, which leaves bikers vulnerable to the perils of traffic.
On a Bike? Know Your Place on the Road
The great thing about bike lanes is that they allow you to cruise right on by while cars remain idle. For the most part, bikers are required to follow the same traffic laws as their motored counterparts. However, it's not always clear whether it's legal to ride a bike on the sidewalk or to bicycle against traffic, for example.
As the popularity of bicycle commuting expands, so do laws and policies designed to help bikers thrive (or just survive). For example, California has become one of the latest states to institute a 3-foot "buffer zone" to protect bikers from aggressive motorists. Maryland, meantime, substantially ramped up its maximum penalty for negligent drivers who injure or kill bicyclists.
Speaking of Injuries...
Everyone who rides a bike regularly will probably experience a minor "event" at least once, whether it's a wipeout followed by road rash or a car door swung open at the wrong moment. Since bicyclists are lighter and less-protected than motorists, it's extremely important to wear a helmet and follow other bike safety guidelines. FindLaw's Bike Accidents section covers bike accident liability and other topics.
Believe it or not, sometimes bicyclists are to blame for accidents with motorists (though criminal charges are rare), but bikers hitting pedestrians are more common. Last year, a San Francisco bicyclist pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide after he struck and killed a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
We hope your two-legged commute goes smoothly and safely, but think of us as your legal fix-it kit should anything go awry.