Motor Vehicle Accidents Law

Child Bicycle Accident Liability

Riding bicycles is a fun, healthy pastime for people of all ages, but children confront many unique risks that adult cyclists don't. On top of their smaller size, potentially rendering them less visible, these riders may lack the good judgment to respond properly in the face of hazards. When child bike accidents occur, victims' families may have to rely on the law to aid their search for justice.

The Realities of Bicycling Accident Risks

Bike accidents pose a significant risk for children. As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 467,000 Americans were injured in bike crashes in 2015. More than 33 percent of all people who visit the hospital for nonfatal injuries related to bicycle riding are below the age of 20. Most of the deaths that occur take place in urban zones and locations that aren't intersections.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, children should never ride on the street until they are at least 10 years old. Due to their immaturity, these cyclists lack the decision-making capability to stay safe when they are around hazards like motor vehicle traffic. These guidelines aren't laws, and parents aren't always watching their children closely, so many youthful riders may be at enhanced risk.

Do Helmet Laws Help?

Unfortunately, safety gear isn't always mandatory. For instance, Washington state doesn't prohibit young people from riding without helmets but rather leaves this up to its cities and counties. In Virginia, many jurisdictions enforce rules that require anyone below the age of 15 to wear a helmet while riding. In Tennessee and Maryland, the mandatory age limit is 16, and it applies to anyone riding on public property, such as roads and sidewalks. The District of Columbia has a similar age limit.

Helmet laws may not be consistently enforced in every situation, and some kids avoid wearing them altogether. For instance, the CDC found that under half of all minors between 5 and 14 years of age use helmets while riding. It also discovered that helmet use is less frequent among older children. 

Drivers' Greater Duty of Care Around Children

It often falls upon motorists and other adults to proceed with heightened caution and prevent child bike accidents. State and federal agencies suggest a range of helpful actions that might assist drivers in reducing the likelihood of tragedies. Drivers should:

  • Refrain from passing riders unless they can maintain a bicycle buffer zone of a minimum of 3 feet between them and the bicycle
  • Not use headlights in high-beam mode when they see oncoming riders
  • Pause and check for riders coming from the rear before opening their car doors or stepping out of vehicles
  • Yield to bike riders traveling through dedicated lanes and wait until they have passed safely to make turns

It may also help to consider the rules of safety that govern operating a motor vehicle around youthful pedestrians. Washington state advises that motorists increase the size of the buffer zones that they maintain around child riders since their movements are often hard to anticipate.

After Bicycling Accidents: Children and Comparative Negligence

When motorists collide with adult bike riders, courts may decide that the rider contributed to the accident in some way. For instance, if a cyclist failed to use the bike lane properly or engaged in unsafe behaviors like racing, then they might be found partially at fault and will only receive a portion of the damages they seek in a lawsuit. With children, partial fault laws are different because these riders may not be legally recognized as being capable of managing their own safety. In other words, they can't be held responsible for engaging in negligent behaviors that contribute to an accident.

The age below which children can't be found negligent varies by state. Also, older children might not be held to the same stringent standards that an adult rider would. For instance, suppose that a motorist strikes a minor who is not required by state law to wear a helmet. The fact that cyclists neglected to wear head protection might not be deemed sufficient justification to find them at fault for their injuries. Judges have the leeway to consider their maturity, experience and other factors.

In some cases, parents may be found to have been negligent in some fashion. Imagine that a parent lets their child ride their bicycle in a busy thoroughfare. If the child subsequently sustains injuries that a motorist tried to avoid, then the parent may be held partially at fault. In states like Delaware that impose liability on owners of vehicles that they let a minor drive, parents may be more likely to be deemed responsible for damages. Just as motorists have to work to minimize risks to children, parents must reduce the hazards they face and not expose them to clear dangers.

Important Takeaways

It's widely accepted that children are at higher risk of getting into bike accidents. Furthermore, most states have some kind of rules that uphold parental liability for minors' injuries and misconduct.

The best course of action is to establish strict rules concerning where, when and how children may ride their bikes. If accidents occur even after parents take such precautions, however, then they may benefit from examining the circumstances in detail to learn how drivers could have prevented the incident.