Legal Brief – Rights and The Right Hook

While a right hook can happen with almost no warning, knowing your rights can help you be prepared.

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Legal Brief – US

The “right hook,” when a driver is traveling in the same direction as a bicyclist and turns right across the rider’s path into a driveway, private road, or parking space, can happen with almost no warning. The rider is either struck from the side as the car turns, or gets cut off and collides head on with the side of the car. While a right hook can happen with almost no warning, knowing your rights can help you be prepared.

It is important to understand the right hook for a couple reasons. First, by being aware of this kind of crash, you can anticipate it and take steps to avoid it. You can slow down and let them cross in front of you, try to make the right turn with them, or stop completely. Second, the right hook is a perfect illustration of why we need well-written, bike-specific legislation on the books.

In nearly every right hook case I have handled, I heard the same refrain from the accused motorist, “But she ran into me!”

Insurance adjusters and even police officers often echo this defense, all in a wrongheaded effort to shift the blame to the bicycle rider. The result is that even when a rider had the right of way – they were proceeding straight after all – and the motorist failed to check that the path was clear before turning, the simple fact that the car was struck by the bike can inject doubt into an otherwise clear case.

It may not be obvious, but the right hook perfectly illustrates the need for better bike laws. Because, like “dooring,” it is a crash that only really happens to bicyclists. Without a statute that directly addresses such a scenario, it becomes an uphill battle to prove that the driver was at fault. However, a well drafted law can dispel any doubt, and ensure that bikers’ rights are protected.

Here in Massachusetts, proud home to what I’d argue are the best bike laws in the country, we have such a law on the books. General Law Chapter 90 Section 14 states, in part, that “no person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway” unless it is safe to do so. The driver must ensure that they are turning safely and not into the path of a bicyclist.

In just about every right hook case I have handled, the driver’s insurance has attempted to deny liability, and this law was enough to change their tune. If your state doesn’t have a law like this on the books, then contact your local advocacy group and make sure they are on the right track.


Josh Zisson is a bike lawyer in Boston, MA. He rides the safest bike on the road and writes about bike safety and the law at bikesafe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BikeSafeBoston

9 Comments

  • Brandon

    You can slow down and let them cross in front of you, try to make the right turn with them, or stop completely.

    Is the author really under the impression that people see a right hook coming and choose to simply run into cars? If people knew they were going to be hooked, they’d just stop. The only way to prevent right hooks is to control your lane.

  • Bicyclists Belong in the Traffic Lane

    The tacit acceptance of bicyclists riding inconspicuously and unexpectedly and thus unsafely near the road edge, as conveyed in this piece, needs to end, especially among so-called “bike advocates”. As others have noted “doorings” and “right hooks” are peculiar to bicyclists because only (some) bicyclists choose to ride in space that makes them vulnerable to these types of crashes. Those of us who eschew edge riding don’t encounter these conflicts at all, and benefit in other ways as well. Please find our Facebook page by Googling: Bicyclists Belong In The Traffic Lane.

  • MarkB

    Cyclists “so often cling to the side of the road” because in most places, THE LAW REQUIRES IT. We who are FORCED (not choose) to do so disagree with it, as well, but ill-informed lawmakers and law enforcement are too big a wall to batter down individually. Reform IS happening, but it is GLACIER-SLOW.

    • Jon Thompson

      “Cyclists “so often cling to the side of the road” because in most places, THE LAW REQUIRES IT”

      That is entirely defined by the state you happen to be in. For instance, in Iowa, the law requires that a bicycle be on the right half of the road, unless it is a one way road. Therefore, vehicular cycling is legal in Iowa. Oh and a recent court case requires cars to entirely change lanes to pass a bicycle.

      It’s dangerous to give a blanket statement about legality on the internet, because you might lead someone astray.

      Oh, and I am not a lawyer, I could be completely wrong in my assessment of Iowa law, so you should consult an actual lawyer.

  • Andy

    I would much rather take responsibility for my own safety than rely on every other person around me to follow all applicable laws. This is why, as a cyclist, I do not put myself in a position where I can be doored or right-hooked. This means that I ride in a conspicuous position in the lane, outside of the door zone of parked cars, and far enough left that motorists do not try to pass me and immediately turn right.

  • A R

    Laws that require cyclists to ride in or near the ditch are what cause most of these accidents in the first place. Making laws that require cars to yield will not reduce these accidents one bit. Making it so that cyclists don’t have to ride in the ditch or far to the right is what is needed.

  • Josh

    Right hooks are encouraged by legislation in most states that requires cyclists to ride to the far right side of the road. Various states have a mix of exceptions, but the general rule is that cyclists must ride where motorists are not looking for conflicting traffic. You’re quite right that it’s similar to dooring, an accident that happens only to cyclists, because only cyclists are required to ride in the most dangerous part of the street. Where cyclists control the center of the right travel lane, right-hook crashes essentially vanish, because motorists must change lanes to pass. Where cyclists control the right-most lane, doorings vanish, because cyclists are not in the door zone of parked cars. Rather than tinkering with defensive afterthoughts, we should cure the root cause of this problem, laws, enforcement, and culture that encourage cyclists to ride dangerously far to the right.

  • Eli Damon

    It seems to me that a right hook is a right-of-way violation and should be illegal under the law that requires yielding before moving laterally or, as Paul mentioned, the law that requires moving to the right before turning.

    Also, right hooks happen almost entirely to cyclists because cyclists so often cling to the edge of the road, which is well-established among bicycle safety instructors and experts to be dangerous. Other drivers of narrow vehicles, such as motorcyclists, do not ride near the edge because most of them have learned in Motorcycle safety courses that doing so is dangerous. Cyclists can and should take responsibility for their own safety and ride in manner that prevents these kinds of crashes.

  • Paul Schimek

    Josh, you are overlooking a key element of the traffic law. The sentence just before the one you quoted says, “When turning to the right, an operator shall do so in the lane of traffic nearest to the right-hand side of the roadway and as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of roadway.” In the right hook situation where the motorist passes a bicyclist and then turns, he cannot possibly be obeying this rule, because he cannot both overtake another vehicle (including a bicycle) at a safe distance to the left AND approach the turn “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of roadway.” Every state has rules that are equivalent to these rules on making a right turn and passing at a safe distance. No special bike legislation is required, just an effort to have people understand and enforce the existing laws without prejudice.
    You also neglect a second element: sometimes it is the bicyclist who is overtaking on the right of a slower motorist. In this case the rules for passing on the right govern. Most states permit passing on the right when there is room for another “line” (not “lane”) of vehicles (including bicycles), but specify that the person passing must do so “only under conditions permitting that movement in safety.” It is clearly not safe to overtake on a right when the vehicle ahead is signaling a right turn. However, it is also unsafe at any time when the vehicle could turn right. This is especially true when the vehicle ahead is a truck or bus, which must necessarily start its turn from further to the left AND has a larger blind spot.
    When bicyclists are passing on the right in an open lane, they are protected by the rule that no driver may change lanes without first checking and yielding and by the rule that right turns must be made from the right-most lane. However, if bicyclist is in a bicycle lane, most drivers will not think to merge into the bike lane before making the right turn — in fact most think that they are not allowed to be there. This sets up a situation where bicyclists are tempted to overtake on the right of a right-turning vehicle. (California law makes the requirement to merge into the bike lane before turning right explicit; in other states it flows from the requirement to make the turn from the right-most LANE.) (In Oregon, things are topsy-turvy: the bike lane is not part of the roadway; bicyclists are not allowed to leave it; motorists must yield to bicyclists passing on their right before turning right, but can’t see well enough to do so, even if they come to a complete stop, especially if they are driving a large vehicle.)
    Massachusetts has unique, non-standard rules that permit bicyclists to pass on the right without restriction. This is a nice feature to assist injured bicyclists to collect damages, but a bad feature if we wish to prevent injuries in the first place.

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