If You Crash…

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by Tom Revay
with assistance from Andrew Fischer, Attorney-at-Law, Jason & Fischer and
Sheldon Brown.

Fortunately, crashes between bicycles and motor vehicles are rare events. Studies over the years have shown that most cycling accidents don’t involve motorists, but instead, result from the cyclist losing control of his or her bike on bad paving, sand, debris and litter, or by hitting fixed objects such as curbs, trees and parked cars.

Of course, this fact doesn’t make colliding with a moving automobile any easier, and bicycle accidents with motor vehicles can be dangerous and even life-threatening. We offer some advice on what to do if this should happen to you.

Learn the skills which can help prevent collisions. Find out more about bike safety here. But if, despite your skills, you have had an accident with another driver. What should you do?

1. Make sure you’re safe
If you’re down, lie still until you or a qualified person on the spot can ensure that you are not seriously hurt. Beyond what movement you may need to make certain that you are not bleeding seriously, or that your bones or joints are not broken or dislocated, try not to move for a few minutes. Don’t panic, and if you are lying in a place where you are not in danger if you stay there, take a few minutes to relax, think and collect yourself.

If you are lying in harm’s way, you should try to get to a safe place. If your bicycle is lying where it could be damaged further, you should try to move it out of the way. Before you move yourself or your bike, try to make a written or a mental note of where you and your bicycle ended up after the collision occurred. If the motorists involved in the accident move their vehicles, note where their vehicles were before they moved them out of the way. You will provide this information to the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the police when you file your accident report.

If medical care arrives, don’t refuse it unless you are positive you are not injured. If there is even the slightest doubt that you might have a bruised or damaged bone, sprained or dislocated joint, torn muscle or internal injury, or any other injury, allow qualified medical assistance on the scene to help you. Never refuse medical assistance if you have suffered any blow to your head or face, or if your back or neck have been bent or turned.

2. Identify other principals involved in the accident
Boston attorneys Jason and Fischer offer this advice for cyclists at the scene of a motor vehicle accident:

  • Ask to see the driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations of the drivers of all motor vehicles involved in the accident.
  • Write down the names, addresses and driver’s license numbers of all the drivers. Obtain the names of the motorists’ insurance companies from their vehicle registrations.
  • Look for witnesses to the accident, and ask them for their names, addresses and telephone numbers.
  • Write down or take notice of any injuries suffered by you or other people on the scene.
  • If the police investigate, cooperate with them. Tell them what you saw. Avoid drawing conclusions of responsibility for the accident — that will get sorted out later. Right now, it is enough to describe what occurred. Be careful about speaking to the investigating police, who often have a bias against cyclists.

Be prepared to identify yourself to others involved in the accident. Avoid getting angry with the other parties — it will only make the process longer, and might work against you.

What if the other driver leaves?
A motorist who is involved in an accident, and who leaves the scene without stopping and identifying himself or herself has committed a serious offense. Try to get the vehicle license number and US state or Canadian province from the vehicle’s marker plate. Report this information to the police as soon as possible, and again when you file your accident report.

3. Check out your bike
Even if you feel well enough to ride your bike, you should consider not doing so if there has been any damage to the fork, the handlebars, or the headset bearings that let you turn the handlebars.

Most better-quality bikes feature lightweight aluminum alloy handlebars, which can snap suddenly if they have been bent, making them dangerous to ride on. Similarly, if your fork is bent or if your headset is damaged, your bike’s steering and balance might be dangerously out of line.

If the front end of the bike looks okay, spin each wheel, and apply the brake to stop each one. If either wheel is significantly out-of-true, or if one or both of the brakes do not apply smoothly, do not ride the bike.

Next, grab each crank, and pull it away and towards the bike. If there is any play, don’t get on the bicycle!

Turn the pedals and check to see that neither the pedals nor the cranks are bent.

This might be a good time to call a taxicab. If you do, ask the driver for a receipt when you reach your destination. There’s a good chance you’ll be reimbursed when you file your insurance claim.

4. After the crash
You are no longer at the scene of the accident.  Now you want to look after yourself, and your bike and other property, by seeking proper medical care, complying with the accident reporting laws, and by documenting the damage to your bicycle and equipment. Doing this part of the accident recovery process thoroughly will make recovery and compensation for damages you suffered due to the accident much easier later on.

Medical care away from the accident
If you were not treated at the scene of the accident or at a hospital, you should be seen by your personal physician or at a walk-in clinic or hospital ambulatory care unit as soon as possible. If you have obtained the names of the motorists’ insurance companies, your doctor or clinic might process a medical claim for the visit through the insurance companies at no cost to you. If you pay out-of-pocket for any medical expenses, be sure to obtain and save the receipts for these services and products, since the driver’s automobile insurance is responsible for the first $2000 of your medical expenses under the no-fault provisions of the standard Massachusetts automobile policy.

In particular, keep receipts for items like:

  • doctor’s office or clinic visit charges or co-payments, and fees for medical tests that your doctor orders due to the accident
  • prescription and nonprescription drugs, bandages, salves, supports, and other medical purchases required to treat your injuries
  • transportation fees to and from the hospital or clinic

If you miss time from work that results in a loss of pay due to the accident, be sure to record the exact hours of work missed and your resulting loss of income. This money is also recoverable from the no-fault provisions of the motorists’ automobile insurance.

Accident reports
Massachusetts law requires that you submit an accident report for any motor vehicle accident that results in injury to any involved party, or property damage in excess of $1000, within 5 days of the accident. Accident reports are available at any police station. You can download an accident report form from the RMV website.

When you fill out the report, you should make four copies:

  • mail the original copy to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles at the address printed on the accident form
  • submit one copy to the police department in the city or town in which the accident occurred
  • retain another copy to submit to the other motorists’ insurance companies, if they request it
  • keep a fourth copy for your records.

If you already have an attorney, or if you consult one, show your attorney the accident report before you file it. Your attorney can help you describe the accident in a manner that is more favorable to your version of how the accident occurred.

Getting your bike fixed
The first step in getting your bike fixed is to find out what’s wrong with it. Take it to a reputable dealer, explain that you were in a cycling accident, and that you would like a damage assessment and repair estimate from them. A list of Massachusetts bicycle shops is on this site.

Make it clear that the repairs will not be at your expense. Well-meaning mechanics may try to save you money by truing a bent wheel, straightening a bent frame, and performing other inexpensive maintenance repairs. The fact is that any part that has been bent and straightened, while it may be perfectly usable and not obviously weakened, is not the same as new. If the accident was not your fault, it is the obligation of the responsible party or their insurance company to restore your bike to at least as good condition as it was in before the crash. In a great many cases, this is not economically possible without complete replacement.

For instance, a decent paint job for a bicycle costs $250 to $300. If your bike is an inexpensive one, but the paint was in good shape before the crash, this would be a total loss, and you are owed a new bike.

Similarly, if your frame is bent, it is usually more cost effective to replace the entire bike, unless it is a very expensive bike.

If you fork is bent, the only proper repair is an identical replacement fork; same make, same model, same color. If this is not available, you’re owed a new bike. This doesn’t apply in the case of bikes that have forks made by other manufacturers, as with suspension forks.

Keep any estimates, receipts for charges you pay, and other paperwork that the shop gives to you. If you decide to have your bike fixed right away, rather than wait for the motorists’ insurance companies to settle your claim with them, be sure to save all documents that indicate what was repaired, and what labor and parts charges were required. If the first estimate you get isn’t satisfactory, try another shop.

Recovering for other damages
Don’t forget to save receipts for any articles of personal gear you are forced to replace due to the accident. If you were wearing a cycling helmet (and I hope you were!), you should replace the helmet with an equivalent model if it struck or skidded on any surface at all. Similarly, torn or muddied clothing, broken bicycle accessories, or gear that was lost by being thrown clear from the bicycle in the collision can be have their replacement, repair or cleaning fees reimbursed by the motorists’ insurance companies.

For damaged articles that you don’t replace before you submit your claim, write down a description of each article and a fair estimate of the replacement or repair cost for each damaged item on a sheet of paper. Submit this sheet along with other property receipts with your insurance claim.

Because these are considered damages to property, they are not covered by the no-fault provisions of the standard Massachusetts automobile policy. Therefore, you need to be able to explain why the accident was the other driver’s fault, since the insurance claims adjuster might presume otherwise.

5. Handling the insurance company
At your earliest opportunity, telephone the insurance companies of all the motorists involved in the accident. Inform each one that you were involved in an accident with one of their clients, and give the motorist’s name. Your claim will be assigned a claim number and a contact person (or “claims adjuster”) at the insurance company. You will also receive one or more claim forms in the mail.

If you are asked to give a written or tape recorded statement, you should refuse to do so. You should answer the claims adjuster’s question to permit the insurance company to evaluate your claim, but a recorded statement might be used against you if there is a disagreement over who caused the accident.

Also, the medical portions of the insurance claim forms will include authorizations for your doctors to release medical information. These releases are usually very broad, permitting the insurance company to obtain your entire medical history. Therefore, when you find authorizations in the form that permit the insurance company to have “any or all medical records” (or similar language), you should add the clause, “relating to my bicycle accident on such-and-such date,” so that you limit the authorization to releasing only those medical records that relate to this accident.

Medical expenses for cyclists who have had accidents with drivers whose vehicles are registered and insured in Massachusetts will have their medical claims settled up to the no-fault limit of each insurance policy, without regard to fault in the accident. Drivers whose vehicles are registered elsewhere will have insurance policies that comply with the regulations of the state, province or national government where the vehicles are registered.

Property damage to your bicycle will be covered if the insurance company determines that their client is responsible for the damage. Being able to recover for damage to your bike after a motor vehicle accident is a good reason to ride in compliance with the law! If it appears that the accident is due to your own negligence or violation of state or local law, the motorists’ insurance companies might refuse to pay for damages to your bicycle. Should this happen, you can take the insurance companies to small claims court, where you may represent yourself without a lawyer. Of course, you might want to consult an attorney in any case, especially if the insurance companies find you at fault for the accident.

All warnings aside, most insurance companies would rather be done with claims by cyclists sooner, rather than later. Unless there is significant injury to a cyclist, a bike operator involved in a motor vehicle accident tends to submit a relatively small claim, by automobile insurance standards. For this reason, don’t assume that the claims adjuster is hostile. On the other hand, it is fair to assume that the claims adjuster knows little about bicycling. Although the adjuster may have handled thousands of automobile claims, yours might well be the first bicycle claim that he or she has handled.

Nevertheless, the claims adjuster’s job is to handle the claims process. You should feel free to call him or her and ask any questions you might have about the company’s claims process, as you are filling out their forms and submitting your documentation. (A tip: have your claim number handy when you call, to save them time in looking up your claim.)

The insurance claim
When you receive the claims forms, fill them out and submit them with all the receipts, repair estimates, lost wages documentation, and other information you’ve saved.  Most Massachusetts insurance companies have two separate claims systems: one for medical expenses, one for property damage. Submit the documentation for each kind of claim with the proper form, and make photocopies of everything you mail in, including the claims forms themselves.

As mentioned, insurance companies generally want to put claims behind them. Because of this, claims adjusters typically want you to submit the claim quickly, so that they can settle it with you and move on. While you are better off having them take care of business in a timely manner, don’t be rushed into filing a claim before you have all the information you need to tell them. If you need extra time to get an estimate on fixing your bike or paying for other property damage, take the time.

6. Paying out, or “lawyering up”
The decision of whether or not to hire an attorney is an important one. It is worthwhile for any cyclist who has an accident with a motorist to consult an attorney before proceeding with the insurance claim and settlement. In the least, an attorney can advise and guide you through the process, and he or she will take your side if the insurance company or other authorities decide against you.

Before the insurance company pays you, they might want you to sign a document that indicates that you are satisfied with the payment you will receive, and that releases them from any further claims by you. This document is called a release, and you should be very careful about signing one, because once you have signed it, you cannot make any further claims against this insurance company based on the claim they are settling.

It is best to wait a few days after receiving a release before signing and returning it, to make sure you’re okay. Back or ankle pains that you think will go away in a few days might not. Even worse, knee injuries, which are common in bicycle accidents, sometimes do not become apparent until long after the accident. Remember, once you have signed the release, you cannot make any claim for any other injuries you suffered in the accident, even if you did not know that you had them. So give yourself at least a few days to be certain your aches and pains are mended, before signing the release.

In most cases, it’s enough that your medical bills are paid while you’re on the way to a full recovery, and that your bike and all your damaged or lost property is fixed or replaced. If that’s the case, there is probably no harm in signing the release once all your legitimate needs are met.

However, if your doctor indicates that you might have sustained injuries that could be chronic, that could lead to long-term suffering, or that might prevent you from continuing in your employment in the medium to long term, then you will probably want to seek legal advice.

Similarly, if there are claims pending against you in this accident — for example, if, in the course of the accident, you strike a pedestrian, who in turn blames you for damage to their person — you will almost certainly need the advice of an attorney.

In some cases, state laws actually require cyclists to ride in an unsafe manner. Mandatory bike lane or sidepath laws are two examples of this. Cyclists who ride in traffic according to standard vehicular safety rules in states with these laws occasionally discover that the police will refuse to investigate or support them, or that an insurance company will refuse to honor the claim of a cyclist involved in an accident because the cyclist was breaking the law by riding properly and safely.

You might also find that police are reluctant to investigate, or that the police or the insurance claims adjusters might decide that you are at fault for an accident, even though you were operating safely and within the law. Unfortunately, many of these professionals are quite ignorant about cycling. In this situation, you don’t just need a lawyer, but a bicycling advocate who understands traffic cycling. You should try to locate an attorney who is an experienced cyclist, or who at least has experience in handling bicycling claims.

7. Contacts

A. Bicycle repair

  • We have conveniently listed many of the bike shops in Massachusetts.

B. Legal advice

  • Andrew Fischer, Esq.
    Jason & Fischer, Attorneys at Law
    Jason & Fischer have over 30 years experience at cycling, and over 15 years experience representing cyclists. Free consultation for any cyclist involved in an accident.
    47 Winter Street
    Boston, MA 02108
    617.423.7904
    Jason & Fisher on the web
    Or send them an email.

  • Lawyer referrals in Massachusetts are available from:
    The Massachusetts Bar Association
    20 West St. Boston, MA 02111
    617. 338.0500
    Ask for the Lawyer’s Referral Service.

    The National Lawyer’s Guild
    14 Beacon Street
    Boston, MA
    617.227.7008

Tom Revay acknowledges the indispensable help of Sheldon Brown and Andrew Fischer in writing this article.