You can wave your arms. You can make rude noises. You can wear colors that can be detected from an orbiting satellite. But as a bicyclist you should never assume a passing motorist can see you.
That is the first rule for defensive cycling, according to Gary Brustin, a 41-year old Beverly Hills lawyer who devotes 95 percent of his practice to representing injured cyclists.
“Ride super, super defensively,” said Brustin, a cycling enthusiast since he was 16. “Even if you think the motorist sees you, they’re seeing right through you. And always wear an approved helmet.”
Brustin, a personal injury lawyer the past 15 years, thinks he’s heard every imaginable way cycling accidents occur. But two kinds happen more than others; a dog-cyclist tangle and a collision caused by an automobile turning left into the path of an oncoming cyclist.
DOG ATTACKS: “Get off your bike. Dogs don’t want you, they want the bike. They’re glittery and fast, and to them, it’s something to chase. Put the bike between you and the dog. The worst thing is that the dog will bite your tire, but at least you won’t fall.”
LEFT-TURNING CARS: “Famous last words with cyclists: ‘I made eye contact with the driver of the left-turning vehicle.’ But they look right through you. When I see a car getting ready to make a left-turn, I take one hand off the handlebar and wave at them. Don’t ever assume. They’ll turn directly into you.”
As a group, motorists are hostile towards cyclists, Brustin said. When investigating the causes of accidents, he typically gets three answers.
The last statement is, of course, nonsense. Traffic laws give cyclists the right to ride on California’s streets, and sidewalks are for pedestrians.
“You have to assume we’re a hot object on the roadway and these vehicles are heat-seeking missiles,” Brustin said. There have been incidents of motorists attacking cyclists. In one case in Southern California, a cyclist made an obscene gesture to a late-model sports car after it nearly clipped him.
The car returned and the passenger opened his door in an attempt to sweep the cyclist off the street. ” I’ve had had several cases where I encouraged people to go to the police and press charges of assault with a deadly weapon,” said Brustin, who added that drivers are more hostile in the Deep South.
On the other hand, cyclists have been guilty of crimes too. One man from a Midwestern state called Brustin for a consultation. The man had a permit to carry a handgun, which he took with him during rides. When a dog attacked him, the man fired at the dog, but missed. He was arrested for illegally discharging a firearm.
“I advised the guy he clearly broke the law and to find a criminal defense lawyer,” Brustin said. “But the dog never gave him a problem again.”
Brustin recommends riding on lightly-traveled roads where the speed difference between bicyclists and automobiles doesn’t exceed 20 miles an hour, and that cyclists wear brightly-colored clothing and a helmet.
While helmet manufacturers insist helmets made solely of expanded polystyrene are safe, Brustin recommends buying a helmet of expanded polystyrene encased in a hard plastic shell.
“In a cycling accident, you can hit your head from severe impact two or three times,” said Brustin, who has offices in several Northern California cities, including San Francisco. “You want to make sure that foam stays on your head and doesn’t crack off from first impact.”
When Brustin takes a client, most often he’ll settle out of court with the defendant’s insurance company, taking a third of the settlement as his fee. In cases that go to trial, he says there’s an increasing prejudice against cyclists.
“Juries are mainly motorists and I think the insurance industry realizes this and is pushing harder,” he said.
Mountain biking accidents rarely result in a lawsuit, Brustin said. “It must be because when the cyclists gets injured, it’s his or her fault. But some cases involve products which aren’t built for what they’re used for. Sometimes these bikes just can’t take the beating that people give them.”
Although Brustin deals with cycling injuries and accidents each day, he’s convinced cycling is safe. Most of the approximately 900 cyclist deaths per year are the result of drunk drivers, he said.
“Luckily, most bicyclists are not severely injured anymore because of helmets,” Brustin said. “Helmets are the key to your cheapest way to avoid serious injury.”