Maryland bicycling advocates have been relatively quiet this year in discussing legislation. Last year, we had to stop an ill-advised bill that would require adult cyclists to wear helmets. When you are trying to stop something, it makes sense to get alot of people to voice their objections just to make sure that the Legislators realize how many different people think the bill is a bad idea.
This year we were pushing something new, and it made more sense to start quietly. I think I contacted every advocate I knew in Maryland about this bill, but perhaps I forgot you. I meant to post something in mid-January but that task kept being postponed. I'll try to catch up a bit here.
For years the posts on the Washcycle have discussed the unfairness of the contributory negligence doctrine for cyclists. Last year, I drafted a bill to remedy this, but it made sense to wait in case the entire doctrine was over-ruled or modified in the Coleman v Soccer Association of Columbia case, eventually decided last summer. Once we had the decision in that case, we started moving forward. Delegate Al Carr (D-Silver Spring) volunteered to introduce a bill to limite the doctrine to cases where the driver could prove that the crash was caused by the cyclist violating the law. Delegate Jim Hubbard (D-Bowie) volunteered to co-sponsor the House bill.
While looking for other co-sponsors, I got some feedback from a key Baltimore Senator that the text of the bill was problematic, because the Legislature does not want to re-fight the issue of contributory negligence. Until then, we thought we were carving out an exception that can be justified even to people who otherwise view the doctrine as beneficial. But the feedback was that mentioning the phrase at all would resurrect a matter that had been settled; and there was no way legislators want to have that argument again, just for bicycles. So the bill was redrafted to avoid a direct reference to contributory negligence, and it was introduced in its current form as HB52. In the Senator Raskin (D-Takoma Park) has introduced SB808, with Senators Forehand (D-Rockville) and Peters (D-Bowie) as co-sponsors.
The current form mainly adds four words "and only those duties" to the section of the statute that has long stated that a bicyclist has the same rights and duties as the driver of any vehicle as specified in Title 21, Rules of the Road. The idea is that as long as a cyclist is riding lawfully, a driver who fails to yield the right of way and crashes into the cyclist should not escape the requirement to pay damages with novel theories about how the cyclist should have been riding. Our main focus is right hooks and door-zone crashes, but it should cover other situations, such as drivers failing to yield right of way when making a left turn, or drivers who run down a cyclist traveling in the lane and claim that riding this way is "legal but irresponsible".
The Senate hearing is this Friday, and the advice I have gotten is that we need to do a better job (than we did at the House hearing) of showing that there really is a problem in Maryland, rather than just DC and Virginia. I know of no appellate cases in Maryland deny damanges to a cyclist whose right of way was violated, and only one trial court case that is truly on point (Ennis v. Argueta, Montgomery County Circuit, 2009).
But other documentation could be useful. In particular, examples of police reports that blame the lawfully riding cyclist would be useful, if you know of any. And if you know anyone who filed a claim against a driver who violated his or her right of way and had the claim denied anyway due to contributory negligence, that would be useful evidence as well (especially if they either got a letter or pressed the matter).
(Jim Titus is a bicycle advocate from Prince Georges County. The views expressed herein are solely his own.)