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Scooter and e-bike riders face a nearly impossible legal bar after crashes. A bill could change that

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Before 2016, if you were a pedestrian or bicyclist who was hit by the driver of a car in DC, if even 1% of the incident was your fault you couldn’t collect a cent in damages. The legal standard required what DC Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6) calls a “perfect plaintiff.”

DC Council legislation in 2016 changed that by removing what is called a “contributory negligence standard” for crashes involving non-motorized road users like bicyclists, pedestrians, and people riding non-electric scooters. The idea behind the bill is that these road users are far more likely than drivers to be injured in a crash.

But if your bike or scooter has an electric motor, well, tough luck. The contributory negligence standard still applies.

A new amendment under consideration seeks to remedy that. The amendment expands that 2016 bill to include other vulnerable road users like those riding electric scooters or e-bikes. Like pedestrians and non-motorized bicyclists, those riders would be able to collect damages if their negligence were deemed less than half of the cause of the crash.

The amendment was passed unanimously in a first reading on Tuesday, and will likely move on to a second reading and vote December 1.

Scooter and e-bike riders face a nearly impossible legal bar after crashes. A bill could change that

Under the version of the bill that came out of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, the less stringent legal standard will apply if the plaintiff is a “vulnerable user” of a public road or sidewalk and involved in a crash with a motor vehicle or another vulnerable user.

The change includes in its list of vulnerable users riders of devices such as ATVs, bicycles, dirt bikes, electric mobility devices, motorcycles, e-bikes, non-motorized scooters, and Segways.

The bill also expands the less strict negligence standard to sidewalks — currently, it only applies on streets.

In a 2019 public hearing, when a version of the bill was first introduced, resident Navya Crick testified that riding scooters and bicycles on DC streets can be a frightening experience.

“It seems ridiculous to me to hold cyclists responsible for injury or death when they are hit by vehicles,” Crick said in the June 2019 testimony. “Even if the cyclist makes a mistake and did not see the oncoming car when they darted across an intersection, the driver of the vehicle should be alert and forgiving.”

Between 2017 and 2019, 114 people were injured and one person died in crashes involving electric scooters, according to District Department of Transportation data. More than 1,600 people were injured in bicycle-involved crashes and six died during that same time period (the data does not differentiate between e-bikes and non-motorized bicycles).

“The point that most people seem to miss,” Crick said, “is that when cyclists make a mistake, they are injured or die but when drivers make a mistake, they kill or hurt others.”

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