Motorcycle Accidents: How to Avoid Them and Obtain the Full Amount of Damages When You Can’t
Having represented motorcycle riders for 40 years and having obtained millions of dollars of compensation for riders injured in accidents, some thoughts on what I have learned from investigating and litigating scores of motorcycle accidents. As a general proposition and contrary to popular belief, most motorcycle accidents are not caused by reckless riders weaving in and out of traffic. Rather, the overwhelming majority of motorcycle accidents are the result of driver’s of automobiles failing to observe motorcycles approaching from the opposing direction when executing left hand turns.
By far the most frequent cause of serious injuries to motorcycle riders are drivers of vehicles traveling in the opposite direction who, failing to observe the motorcycle approaching them, make illegal and unsafe left turns at intersections. While some of these accidents have occurred while turning into driveways or alleys, intersection accidents are by far the most frequent location of these accidents. As these turning movements are most often made when the motorcyclist is approaching or within the intersection, the collision typically results with the motorcyclist colliding into the passenger side of the left turning vehicle. The mechanics of such collisions frequently cause the rider to be ejected from his motorcycle into or over the left turning vehicle. Severe and often tragic injuries typically result. Some studies have concluded that motorcyclists have 16 times the rate of serious injuries compared to drivers of automobiles.
While driver’s of left turning vehicles commonly deny their responsibility, interviews with impartial witnesses and analysis of available evidence discloses that the driver simply failed to yield to a motorcycle that was within plain view. The explanation for this behavior is well understood….driver’s of left turning vehicles are looking for oncoming cars and not motorcycles. As a result, they fail to perceive the approaching motorcycle and execute unsafe turning movements. A violation of California Vehicle Code §21801(a) which defines an unsafe turning movement and makes it illegal for a vehicle to turn left without yielding to an oncoming vehicle that is close enough to constitute a hazard is most often cited by investigating officer’s as the primary collision factor. Recognizing that left turning driver’s have difficulty seeing motorcyclists, riders should wear brightly colored clothing, especially at night. While virtually all motorcycles have headlamps that automatically illuminate when the bike is started, headlamps during the daytime are often inadequate to warn motorist of the approaching bike. At the least, wear a helmet that is likely to be seen from a distance.
Contrary to common belief, motorcyclists are not typically reckless and, in fact, are well aware of the dangers inherent in passing through intersections. I have had countless clients tell me that they slow down when going through intersections and look for cars in the opposing left turn lanes, especially when they are approaching an intersection as the first vehicle or ahead of the pack of automobiles behind them. Experts will tell you that simply looking at the car may not be enough. Focus on the wheels to get an early indication of whether the driver may be starting to initiate the turn when you are within a distance where evasive action will not avoid the accident. Most riders recognize that the left turning driver sees the cars approaching and often “guns it” to beat the oncoming traffic and complete their turn without having to wait for traffic to pass. Sometimes, in doing so, they fail to see the approaching motorcycle. The often repeated warning, better to be safe than sorry, should be at the forefront of every motorcyclist approaching an intersection, especially where a vehicle headed in the opposite direction is in the left turn lane or has turned on a left turn signal.
Caution doesn’t simply mean being aware of the danger. It is important that motorcycle riders be prepared to brake or take evasive action to avoid intersection collisions and the often serious injuries that result when riders are thrown to the pavement without adequate protection to insulate them from injury. Often, drivers of left turning vehicles actually collide into the left side of passing motorcyclists inflicting severe leg and foot injuries to the rider. Be aware of traffic around you, if any, as the ability to move quickly into another lane may avoid the collision. While most motorcyclists tend to move to the first position while waiting at traffic lights, remember that doing so means that you run a risk that an aggressive left turning vehicle will not see you and will fail to yield the right of way. Always remember that while you see them, they may not see you.
Generally speaking, slowing your motorcycle as you approach an intersection where vehicles are present in the opposite left turn lane is the best way to avoid serious injury. Remember that keeping the bike upright will allow for the most effective braking and reduction of speed. While it is commonly believed that “laying the bike down” is the best way to avoid injury, experience and research indicates otherwise. Sliding on asphalt at thirty or more miles per hour can result in severe injury and increases the likelihood of behind “run over” which, needless to say is to be avoided if at all possible. In short, have your hands on the brakes as you enter an intersection where a vehicle is present facing the opposite direction and especially where such vehicle is in a left turn lane. Studies have shown that riders often “over brake” the rear wheel resulting in skidding and “under brake” the front wheel which reduces the collision avoidance deceleration. Applying both brakes while stopping is the most effective method of slowing and thereby reducing the severity of the impact and resulting injuries.
When injuries do occur it is imperative that the injured rider do his best, injuries permitting, to document the accident or locate witnesses who can later testify about the fault of the adverse driver. As most left turning drivers will tell investigating officers that the motorcycle was “nowhere” in sight, since they didn’t see it, they will also claim that the motorcycle “must have been speeding”. Time and again Traffic Collision Reports contain exculpatory statements by drivers who, having struck a motorcyclist while executing a left turn, refuse to acknowledge their responsibility. If not at the scene, they will often be persuaded to testify about why they are not at fault by insurance company adjusters or the lawyers that are hired by the insurance company to represent them. Time after time I have taken the depositions of drivers who caused a serious injury to a motorcyclist only to have them make unsubstantiated and fabricated claims about how an accident occurred.
While independent witnesses are the best way to establish the fault of the left turning driver it is important to be sure that you obtain names, addresses and telephone numbers of witnesses as investigating officers, assuming they are on the scene, do not always locate and obtain statements from witnesses. As well, photographs taken at the scene with the vehicles at the “point of rest” can often be invaluable in establishing the responsibility of the negligent driver. Photographs of skid marks or debris deposited on the roadway can also be helpful in demonstrating where the impact occurred thereby demonstrating the fault of the adverse driver.
If you are unable to take photographs, try to get others at the scene to take them or ask the investigating officers to do so before they move the vehicles. As officer’s are often more concerned with clearing the intersection than protecting your right to compensation, you may have to be persuasive to get them to do their duty to document the accident. Even where the officer tells you it was the other guys fault, don’t assume that the insurance company will agree with the officer’s finding. As police reports are not generally admissible in court, it is not likely that the officer’s conclusion will ever get before a judge or jury.
Finally, documenting your injuries is also important and may make the difference in your being adequately compensated. While severe injuries will normally be well document by ambulance personnel and hospital staff, often injuries occur that are not as obvious at first and only become significant days later. It is imperative, therefore, that you report all complaints to a care provider as soon as possible after the accident to insure that a record is made and your rights protected. Commonly, knee injuries and shoulder injuries are not as apparent at the scene but soon become serious requiring surgery and potentially extended disability.
While it goes without saying, contacting an attorney as soon as possible after an accident is always a good idea. Attorneys representing accident victims can provide invaluable advice and counsel and will only charge a fee if they are retained and a recovery obtained. Most importantly, you should speak with an attorney before you speak to any insurance company, their’s or yours! No matter what their advertising claims, insurance companies have only one interest, avoiding paying claims or limiting the amount they pay. Statements made to insurance companies immediately following an accident, even though truthful, may be used against you later when what you thought were minor injuries turn out to be more significant. The best policy, contact an attorney immediately or as soon as you are able and learn your rights and how to protect yourself and your right to be fairly compensated for the injuries you suffer due to the negligence of others.
Finally, make sure you photograph your motorcycle from all angles including taking close up photographs of every portion of the bike. Often, an impact leaves “paint transfers” or deposits of paint from the other vehicle on your motorcycle. These paint transfers can be of critical importance in establishing both where and how the impact occurred. As soon as you are able, have the motorcycle brought to your home and keep it covered and preferably indoors to prevent others from examining the motorcycle without your permission. If you cannot store it at your residence, contact a motorcycle shop that you know and ask them to pick it up and hold it until you can make other arrangements. As you will need an estimate of the cost of repairs for both your insurance company and theirs, having the bike taken to a shop that you trust to prepare a fair and complete estimate will help you be fully compensated for all damage done and will also provide you a witness who can later testify to the damage done, the presence of paint transfers and other details that can make a difference in collecting all damages to which you are entitled.
Injuries occurring in motorcycle accidents can often be serious and may effect you for years to come. Taking precautions when entering intersections is always advisable and could save you from life altering injuries. Where you can’t avoid being struck by a left turning vehicle or other negligent conduct, do everything you can to insure that witnesses are identified and evidence preserved. Photographs taken by cell phones have often been instrumental in obtaining full recoveries for injured motorcyclists. Most importantly, contact an attorney as soon as possible and avoid giving statements to insurance companies without a lawyer present.