Legal Brief – Rules and Rulings

What happens if a cyclist is injured while breaking the law?

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What happens if a cyclist is injured while breaking the law? Mr. Callahan, a commuter cyclist, learned the legal consequences of breaking the rules when he received the reasons for judgment in an action he brought against a motorist for personal injuries.

While Callahan was cycling to his job, he rode along the sidewalk facing oncoming traffic. When he reached an intersection, he stopped for a red light and then proceeded on his bicycle into the crosswalk. He was struck by a motorist in an SUV turning right at the intersection. As he rode in front of the right-turning car he attempted to make eye contact, but the driver was looking left and a collision occurred.

The driver took an interesting position at the trial. He suggested that if Callahan had not been riding on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic, and had instead been riding his bicycle “as near as practicable to the right side of the highway,” he would have not been where he was at the time of the collision and it would not have occurred at all. By putting himself in the wrong place, so the argument went, Callahan was the author of his own misfortune.

The trial judge regarded Callahan’s conduct in riding on the sidewalk as “blameworthy” but not in the sense that he had contributed to the collision. She held that Callahan had stopped his bicycle before entering the crosswalk rather than shooting off the sidewalk at speed. In effect, Callahan was a user of the crosswalk and the driver was required to give way. She stated, “a crosswalk is precisely where other users of the roadway are expected to be, especially when the traffic signals are in their favor.”

As to the argument that Callahan should have been on the right side of the road, the judge felt that Callahan could have just as easily not been in breach of the law before reaching the point of the crosswalk where he stopped. Failing to ride on the right side of the road was not causally significant in the sequence of events that led to the crash.

At the end of the day, Callahan was found 15 percent liable for the collision by failing to make eye contact, and the driver was found 85 percent responsible for failing to keep a proper lookout. The legal significance of Callahan’s various Motor Vehicle Act breaches was that he lost his entitlement to rely on the statutory right of way afforded to all users of the roadway who abide by the law. Once outside of statutory protection, one’s own care for one’s safety receives heightened scrutiny.

David Hay is a litigation lawyer and partner at Richards Buell Sutton LLP. He has a special interest in bike-injury law and can be contacted at 604-661-9250 or at


  • Bob Anderton

    In Seattle, where I practice law and ride bikes, bicyclists are allowed to ride on the roads with other vehicles and on the sidewalks with pedestrians. Bicyclists have a duty to yield to pedestrians but, unless they are in a marked bike lane, motorists do not have a duty to yield to bicyclists. Just like pedestrians, however, Seattle bicyclists can ride on either side of the sidewalk.

    More info here:

  • cYclist

    That doesn’t help if the cyclist is deemed 15% at fault. Perhaps the cyclist wouldn’t be deemed 15% at fault with that law, but you can’t know that ex ante. These jurisdictions need to drop contributory negligence like the dinosaur that it is. Until then, it will be an uphill climb for cyclists to get damages when they are injured. There are countless stories of cyclists in Virginia who got nothing because they were some small percentage at fault.

  • Tanya Raymond

    Thanks for the info. What are some other good resources on the internet to further educate yourself on bike laws if you are wholly or partially at fault, per state. I’m looking for NY specifically.

  • cYLIst

    DC, VA, MD, NC & AL all still have contributory negligence regimes under which a cyclist who is even only 15% at fault would collect nothing. This is especially dangerous for cyclists in these jurisdictions, and this needs to change.

    • Virginia Bicycling Federation

      I need to correct cYList (who?) about Virginia. We may have contributory negligence, but we also have statutory protection for cyclists in crosswalks: “A person riding a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, motorized skateboard or foot-scooter, motor-driven cycle, or an electric power-assisted bicycle on a sidewalk, shared-use path, or across a roadway on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties of a pedestrian under the same circumstances.” Not to be pedantic — the takeaway for bike advocates is, while we can’t re-engineer the whole legal system, we CAN effectively patch it, often by sliding a word or two into existing statutes, without too much committee resistance.

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