The Observer, Sunday September 7 2008
As the cost of petrol blows an ever-bigger hole in our bank accounts, more of us are hopping on to bicycles instead.
Sales at Halfords, one of Britain’s biggest bicycle vendors, improved 7.2 per cent last year; cycling is on the rise in most cities and increased in London alone by 91 per cent in the past 12 months; and the government is wedded to encouraging pedal power nationwide as a way of getting fit, beating the traffic and bringing down carbon emissions.
In fact, there’s so much going for cycling that people are increasingly inclined to ignore the dangers and how much an accident could cost them. According to accident prevention charity RoSPA, about 16,000 cyclists were injured in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, but between 60 and 90 per cent of incidents go unreported.
Penny Knight, who heads the cycling and sports injuries’ team at solicitors Leigh Day Co, lists the most common scenarios as vehicles turning right into the path of a cyclist or emerging from a side road, and collisions on roundabouts. ‘In London, lorries turning left are the greatest cause of fatalities and serious injuries for cyclists,’ he says.
Unlike drivers, cyclists don’t have to have insurance and compensation tends not to be uppermost in their minds.
Colette Smith, of south London, is a typical example; she came off her bike in February on her way to work. Fortunately, a colleague was passing and made sure an ambulance took her to A&E to treat her for cuts, grazes and concussion. Although Colette has no memory of what happened, she thinks her bike slipped on debris from a building site.
It was only when her dentist presented her with a bill for £2,350 for repairing the bridge she had damaged in the accident that she started wondering if she had a case for compensation. ‘It is really annoying that I am having to pay with my hard-earned cash,’ she says.
The reality is that accidents that don’t involve another party are sometimes tricky to prove, but it’s worth discussing any possible claim with a personal injury lawyer. ‘Cyclists tend not to want to make a quick buck’, says Kevin O’Sullivan of solicitors Levenes, a keen cyclist who has represented other cyclists for more than 10 years. ‘But they should make a claim because costs start mounting up and the law is there to protect them.’
Using a solicitor specialising in cycling accidents is a wise move. ‘They’re very used to seeing the kind of accident that cyclists have and the arguments that insurers try to make,’ says O’Sullivan.
Common objections from insurers are that a cyclist was not wearing high-visibility clothing at night or a helmet. However, neither is obligatory. The law looks less favourably on those who break the rules of the road, such as cycling the wrong way up one-way streets or jumping red lights, but it all comes down to proving negligence.
‘If cyclists can establish that a third party has been negligent they’re entitled to compensation for their injuries and losses,’ says Knight. ‘So if you break your arm you will get compensation for that. But if you also take time off work, you will be paid for any loss of earnings.’
The cases most likely to succeed are those where a cyclist has collided with a vehicle. Where a cyclist has hit a pothole, manhole cover or debris, the first port of call is the local authority, which might redirect the claimant to a building contractor or service provider. In the case of a hit-and-run accident or a diesel spillage, the claim will go to the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, funded by motor insurers to compensate victims of negligent uninsured or untraced drivers.
While the time limit for a personal injury claim is three years, the quicker an accident victim finds a solicitor to pull together all the evidence, the more likely he is to win. In an ideal world the victim will have called the police, taken photos (mobile-phone pictures will do) of the scene and any injuries and noted the contact details of any witnesses. Unfortunately, the cyclist is often in no fit state to do this. Even then, all is not necessarily lost. ‘A competent lawyer can get information from police and hospitals,’ says O’Sullivan. Ambulance records also provide useful evidence.
Personal injury solicitors are often registered with the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, which provides an online search facility (www.apil.org.uk). Bodies such as the CTC, the national cyclists’ organisation, and London Cycling Campaign offer legal advice as a perk of membership. Claims management companies are now regulated but still have a reputation for greed and hard-selling. They are best avoided, especially if there is no solicitor handling claims, as they will not be able to pursue compensation through the courts and could persuade you to settle for a lower out-of-court award against your best interests.
Generally, where claimants have no legal expenses insurance, solicitors operate on a no-win, no-fee basis. This means that when you win, the other party’s insurers pick up your legal bill, and if you lose, you don’t have to pay your own legal fees, though you could be liable for your opponent’s. A special insurance policy can cover the other side’s costs.
Avoiding an accident in the first place is, of course, the preferred outcome. ‘The precautions to take are to get cycle training and maintain your bicycle,’ advises Tom Bogdanowicz, campaigns and development manager at the London Cycling Campaign. ‘Training helps you to be confident in traffic and adopt a road position where you can be seen, communicate clearly with other road users and be aware of traffic movements.’
3,000 out of court
Jules Richards, a research chemist from Hale, Cornwall, had only ridden his £1,500 bike three times when he was involved in a collision in February. A keen triathlete, he had just begun a training ride when a car pulled out in front of him. He went straight into the side of it and bounced off the windscreen. ‘I ended up in the middle of the road, sprawled out,’ he says. He suffered extensive bruising to his left hip, knee and shoulder, but managed to take the motorist’s insurance details.
His local cycle shop pronounced his bike a write-off and, as Jules was a member of British Triathlon Federation, suggested he contact them. Their solicitors, Leigh Day, advised him to report the incident to police and obtain two quotes for his bike. ‘I didn’t think I’d be eligible for damages,’ says Jules. However, he ended up with an out-of-court settlement of £1,250 for his injuries and a further £1,750 for his damaged bike, helmet and cycle jacket. British Triathlon paid his legal fees.
Jules has just taken part in a five-day John o’ Groats to Land’s End bike ride to raise money for Penny Bond Cancer Care and Cancer Research UK.
Source : http://www.guardian.co.uk