Can a driver be at fault if he doesn’t actually hit you?

Let’s say you’re driving your car.

I know, but just go with me here, even if you’re of the car-free persuasion.

You’re approaching an intersection and have the green light. Suddenly, a car blows through the red light on the cross street, forcing you to jam on the brakes and swerve to avoid it, only to collide with the car next to you.

So who’s at fault?

Is it your fault? The car you hit? Or the one who broke the law and caused you both to take evasive action?

I think most reasonable people would conclude that the red light-runner should be held responsible, even though he wasn’t directly involved in the collision. And based on previous cases I’ve been aware of, I think most police officers would agree.

Now consider a similar situation, in which a driver darts out of a driveway directly in front of you, causing you to collide with another car as you react to avoid it. But fortunately, someone was able to chase the driver down and urge him to return to the scene of the accident he caused.

Again, most people would conclude that the driver who broke the law by cutting you off would be responsible for causing the collision. But is it hit-and-run if he didn’t actually hit anyone?

Now let’s use your imagination one more time.

Let’s say you’re on your bike, riding in the bike lane, when that car darts out in front of you. So you try to make a panic stop, and end up flipping over your handlebars and crashing to the street with a broken collarbone, while the driver who caused it calmly drives off.

Fortunately, a witness sees it happen and chases the driver down. But the driver refuses to return to the scene, insisting that it’s not hit-and-run because she didn’t hit anyone.

That’s exactly what happened on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake yesterday.

As Stephen Box tells the story, the witness flagged down a passing police car, and the driver ultimately returned to the scene. But the police inexplicably concluded that not only did the driver not flee the scene, but that no violation occurred. No report, no crime.

This, despite a clear violation of CVC 21804, as Box points out —

21804. (a) The driver of any vehicle about to enter or cross a highway from any public or private property, or from an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all traffic, as defined in Section 620, approaching on the highway close enough to constitute an immediate hazard, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that traffic until he or she can proceed with reasonable safety.

And yes, a bicycle is traffic.

As he explains —

1) The motorist violated the cyclist’s right of way.
2) The violation of the cyclist’s right of way caused the cyclist to take evasive action resulting in injury.
3) The motorist left the scene of an “incident” that was her responsibility.

Of course, any cyclist could tell you that the driver was responsible. But two police officers, the division Watch Commander and a traffic division Watch Commander concluded otherwise.

Which is why police officers need better training, not only in bike rights and law, but in bicycle accident investigation. Because a driver making a panic stop without hitting anyone isn’t likely to result in any injuries. But a cyclist responding to a careless, law-breaking driver can.

And did.

It’s also one more reason why we need to change the law in California to ensure that any cyclist riding legally in a bike lane enjoys the same level of liability protection as a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Because the mere presence of a bike lane — or sharrows, for that matter — should be adequate notice to any driver to anticipate cyclists, just as a crosswalk suggests the presence of pedestrians.

And you should have a right to be safe when you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, exactly where you’re supposed to be.


I’ve received an unconfirmed report that the cyclist involved in the hit-and-run on Oxnard Street April 16th has died. If anyone has more information, let me know.


This time, a drunken hit-and-run driver kills a teenage pedestrian and seriously injures her friend.


Josef Bray-Ali writes in the Los Angeles Business Journal that L.A. needs to change its parking policies to allow bike parking instead of cars.Will hears, and witnesses the aftermath, of a dooring (even though the cyclist didn’t want to involve the police, the driver could still face hit-and-run charges later if she fails to report it). Altadenablog covers the Mt. Wilson Bicycling Association’s pancake breakfast over the weekend. Courtesy of The Source, Grist’s look at what a car-free metro L.A. could look like; as The Source says, “The point is to show how much space is taken up by roadways and how little that leaves behind for those things known as pedestrians and cyclists.” A 57-year old cyclist dies of a heart attack in San Jose during the Mt. Hamilton Challenge. It seems pretty obvious that if you hit a cyclist, you didn’t observe the three-foot passing law. A Miami cyclist rear-ends a bus parked in the bike lane. A 70-year old Indiana driver turns directly into two cyclists, and swears she didn’t hit anyone. After people in a passing car throw a full drink at him, a South Bend cyclist thanks all those drivers who don’t, Experienced cyclists need to encourage less experienced riders. An Arizona woman says local drivers — and the police — just don’t understand cyclists. Tucson hands out free lights to ninja cyclists. A DC court rules it’s still drunk driving, even if you’re on a bike. The NY Times looks at the two-wheeled tribes of New York. Master framebuilder Dave Moulton writes about a 1940 Campy derailleur — which required reaching backwards and ratcheting the rear wheel. Vinokourov bounces back from a two-year doping ban with victory in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège; evidently, not everyone is pleased. Evidently, there are no fixie-riding hipsters in China. Brit bike thieves may just be joyriding, which could be why bike theft is up 8% while other crimes are down. London’s Guardian defends a new bike lane, noting that it’s standard width even if the resulting vehicle lane isn’t. An Ottawa rider gets goosed on the bike trail, literally. A Canadian widow wants to know why no ticket was written for the parked truck that killed her husband. A Vancouver cyclist turns outlaw by defying the mandatory helmet law.

Finally, after a cyclist is killed during his first bike race, his heart lives on in another rider, while a cyclist rides to promote blood donations three decades after receiving 110 pints to save his life. A reminder that, with a little forethought, some good can come from even the worst situations.


  1. The Trickster says:

    That sounds somewhat similar to an serious incident we had at K2 a couple of years.

    Douchebag in a white ute (a.k.a pickup truck) goes flying past the front bunch sitting on the horn while approaching a blind corner (two lane road). The bunch could hear a large milk tanker coming from the other way which obviously the douchebag could neither hear nor see. When he does see it he cuts straight across the front of the bunch sending everyone chucking on the anchors resulting in a touch of wheels and one guy getting thrown into the front right wheel of the milk tanker. Luckily the tanker driver could see what was going to happen before it did so, so was only travelling at about 20k an hour.

    The rider ended up with quite serious brain injuries and other injuries.

    The ute driver didn’t stop but the police tracked him down about 40km down the road (what was worse was he was a supporter of someone who was riding that day – all of which had been told in NO uncertain terms NOT to follow the riders around) and got his details.

    Anyway, he never got charged with a thing and the police tried to blame the riders.

    Ultimately the test should be this: if you cut in front of a family in a car and they run into a tree thanks to your piss poor driving – would the offending driver be charged with dangerous driving? Now why doesn’t this also apply to people who do this to cyclists.

  2. The Trickster says:

    Also, something which is kind of cool that has been released here – official police crash stats with locations here in Auckland for the 6 different areas. It only has the last 200 for each area. So for instance the Eastern list goes all the way back to 1997, whereas the Central list goes back only to 2007.

    When I’ve got some time and inclination I’m going to go through and do a big collation of the information. However one theme I’ve already found has been that in the rare instances where cyclists are at fault that they’re often kids under the driving age.

  3. Regarding this 70-year-old woman who ran over two cyclists: I am so tired of people saying “I couldn’t see you/the cyclist/etc.” as an excuse. It’s not an excuse. I wear two bright red blinking rear lights, and an f’in strobe white front light. I wear reflective anklets, and usually bright pink or safety orange (and if anyone thinks safety orange isn’t the new black, you’re f’in crazy). My bike bags all have reflective material on them. I ride in the middle of the road where I’m supposed to, not in the gutter. If you don’t see me, IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT LOOKING!!!

    If you don’t stop long enough (or roll a stop sign) to denote traffic coming from all directions, then you are being negligent.

    Monday night (the night before I turned 30), I came as close as I ever have to being killed. I was approaching a green light, and pushed my speed up a tic to make it. I was going 20 miles an hour, when I see a car moving in an underground parking garage just before the light, to my right. The driver pulls out of the parking garage, across the sidewalk and into the road, head first right into me, without even tapping on her brakes. I’m slamming on my brakes, fishtailing at 20mph and screaming stop. She looks my way, taps on my brakes, looks very surprised, mouths “oh my, I’m so sorry”, but never stops and continues to pull out into traffic, just inches away from me.

    Here’s the thing…I was able to stop, thankfully. But if I was an SUV and not a bike, she would be very dead right now. I was in the middle of the road, not hugging the curb, and very visible. And the fact that she continued to violate my right of way and never once in the whole incident did she stop…I hope that she was startled enough by her own carelessness to be more careful, but she proceeded to speed up and run through the light that I had been trying to make.

    Here’s the lesson: if you didn’t see me, it’s because you weren’t looking at the road. If you didn’t see me, it’s because you didn’t stop before pulling into traffic and making sure that it was clear.

    A small part of me wishes I had been in an SUV so she would have learned a real lesson. But that’s the angry part of me. I really just want people to drive safer.

    • bikinginla says:

      I’m very glad you made it to your 30th birthday, Amanda; the world would be a poorer place without you. And you’re right — not seeing a cyclist is an admission of guilt, not an excuse.

      Happy birthday, and best wishes for the next 30.

      • Thank you.

        I just wish that all those drivers out there who have these close calls or incidents with bikes would think about what the results would have been if the bike had been an SUV. Maybe then they’ll see that the reason they are alive and not dead is because a cyclist braved the road.

        It shouldn’t have to be you or me, who has the most armor, who has the biggest vehicle lives. We should all be trying to make the roads safe for each other. I don’t want a motorist to have to swerve around me because of something stupid I do, and then hit another motorist and then some one dies. That’s all.

  4. MTS says:

    Playing devil’s advocate here, should the driver be held responsible for a cyclist who does not know how to execute an quick stop without injuring himself?

    • bikinginla says:

      Good point. However, it can be hard to maintain proper control in a panic situation; I’ve gone over the handlebars myself when a driver cut me off and I put too much pressure on the front brake. Besides, if the driver hadn’t broken the law, he wouldn’t have had to execute that stop, quick or otherwise.

  5. Blank says:

    What if I was giving a U-turn on a street where I was able to but at the moment I was doing so 2 cyclist turn 1 of them turn widely onto the street and the other doesn’t, the one that turned widely sees me turning and avoids hitting my car but crashes into the sidewalk and flies off his bike face first to the wall.. could I get any charges even though I didn’t hit him or touch him at all? I continued finishing my turn and slowed down a bit and saw his friend help him up and after that I took off because I felt I was at no fault.. was I right to do so? The other biker that didn’t turn widely onto the street was un injured.

    • bikinginla says:

      Too many variables to give you a definite answer.

      It depends largely on whether your U-turn was legal and who had the right-of-way; assuming a) you were making a legal U-turn, b) you had the right-of-way, and c) the cyclist who made the wide turn was on the wrong side of the road, it’s unlikely you would be held accountable for leaving the scene, but it is possible. You were still involved in the collision, whether or not you were at fault or actually made contact; the collision would not have occurred if you weren’t involved.

      On the other hand, you definitely had a moral obligation to stop and make sure he was okay.

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