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The Legal Risks and Responsibilities of Bicyclists in Georgia

Bicycle accidents occur all too frequently in Georgia and throughout the country. A 2012 federal study showed that 17 bicyclists died in accidents in Georgia, 11th highest among all states. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution further noted last year there were more than 129 bicycle collisions in Fulton and DeKalb counties alone in 2013, highlighting the potential safety risks of riding a two-wheel vehicle on the road.

But bicycle safety is not a one-way street. In Georgia, bicycles are considered “motor vehicles,” meaning bicyclists must obey traffic signals and follow certain safety practices. A bicyclist can never assume he or she has the right-of-way when riding into traffic. A recent decision by a federal judge in Georgia illustrates the perils for bicyclists who fail to obey traffic laws, then attempt to recover damages when they are subsequently injured in an accident.

Marshall v. Penland

This case involves a 2012 accident at an intersection in Augusta. A car was traveling on a northbound lane of a four-lane road. The car approached an intersection with a flashing yellow traffic light, which indicated vehicular traffic had the right-of-way. The driver noticed a bicyclist “straddling a bicycle near the curb on the far side of the intersection.” As the driver entered the intersection—again, with the right-of-way, the bicyclist attempted to cross the street. Consequently, the car struck the bicycle.

The bicyclist subsequently sued the driver for negligence. Since the bicyclist was not a Georgia resident, the case was heard before U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall in Augusta. On April 27, 2015, Judge Hall granted the defendant driver’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the bicyclist’s complaint.

Judge Hall rejected the bicyclist’s argument that the automobile driver “failed to keep a proper lookout” for him, thus causing the accident. To the contrary, all evidence pointed to the bicyclist’s failure to follow applicable traffic laws. “First,” the judge explained, “Plaintiff did not properly come to a complete stop because he was on the sidewalk, not on the roadway as required by Georgia law, prior to entering the northbound lanes of” the street. “Second, there is no evidence that Plaintiff looked for traffic — diligently or otherwise — before crossing the street.” And as noted above, at a flashing yellow-light intersection like the one in this case, the automobile has the right of way, which police at the scene determined the bicyclist violated.

The bicyclist also failed to establish any evidence of negligent driving on the driver’s part. The judge noted weather conditions were clear at the time of the accident, the driver “approached the intersection at a lawful speed, was not using her telephone nor was she otherwise distracted.” Finally, the judge chided the bicyclist for his inconsistent account of the accident. He told medical personnel at the scene he was attempting to ride his bicycle across the intersection. But in his lawsuit, he claimed he was a pedestrian merely walking his bicycle across the street. During proceedings before Judge Hall, he then said he couldn’t recall exactly what happened, but conceded he was “riding his bicycle.”