Special Report: Who’s to blame – drivers or cyclists?

Portland has a thriving bike culture and there is a big divide over who is to blame when cars and bikes collide.

Published November 12, 2007 by KATU.com 

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland has a thriving bike culture and there is a big divide over who is to blame when cars and bikes collide.

KATU's On Your Side Investigative Unit spent weeks poring over 1,536 vehicle versus bicycle crashes and found that drivers actually get the blame for crashes more than bicyclists.

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The Data

The raw data came from the Oregon Department of Transportation and covers crashes that occurred in the Portland Metro Area from 2002 to 2006.

The data does not include descriptions of each accident.  It simply list codes for errors made by drivers and by bicyclists, and indicates the overall cause for each crash.

Overall Fault

  • 41.5 percent – bicyclist at fault
  • 51.8 percent – driver at fault
  • 6.7 percent – blamed on both drivers and cyclists, or were inconclusive

Fatal Crashes

  • 73.7 percent – driver at fault
  • 26.3 percent – bicyclist at fault

Driver Errors

  • 79.5 percent – driver fails to yield to the bicyclist
  • 3 percent – driver makes an improper lane change
  • 2.8 percent – driver disregards signals
  • 1.35 percent – driver's inattention
  • 1.03 percent – driver turns into oncoming traffic

Cyclist Errors

  • 26.85 percent – bicyclist does not have the right of way
  • 19.9 percent – bicyclist is riding while facing traffic
  • 13.45 percent – bicyclist disregards signals
  • 3 percent – bicyclist's inattention

Under the Influence

Very few drivers were under the influence, just 2.4 percent. But for bicyclists, it was a different story.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 23 percent of bicyclists killed nationwide in 2005 had blood-alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent, the legal limit in Oregon and Washington.  This is 26 percent higher than in 1982. 

OHSU Trauma Surgeon John Mayberry echos those numbers, "Number one, don't drink alcohol and get on a bicycle.  We see a lot of that."

Mayberry is part of a team of OHSU researchers just beginning their own analysis of how crashes happen.  He and his colleagues are tracking nearly 1,000 riders for a year. 

"There's going to be a lot more near misses than actual injuries," Mayberry said. "If we can figure out how to prevent the near misses, then we're hoping to prevent injury."

Crashes Have Led To Changes

The bike/car divide has inspired a public relations campaign and tougher new laws.

For example, Mary O'Donnell (pictured on the right) has been among a group of cyclists who have stood roadside in Washington County holding signs and waiving to drivers, encouraging them to share the road. 

O'Donnell's husband of 49 years, Tim (also pictured on the right), was killed this past summer by a driver with a suspended license, who only got a $1,000 fine.

"He wouldn't want me to be bitter," O'Donnell said.  "He would want me to do something to help make it better."  

O'Donnell successfully pushed to increase punishment for negligent drivers to $12,000 and a year's license suspension.

Case Study – Who Would You Blame?

It's a December evening, and it's dark out.  A driver of a Radio Cab is pulling out of the downtown Portland Post Office. The cab driver looks both ways and inches out, but he doesn't see a bike on the sidewalk coming his way. The bike and cab collide. 

The driver's foot slips, hitting the gas instead of the brake. The cab runs the bicyclist over and drags him 28 feet, leaving the bicyclist with serious injuries. 

Can you decide who should be blamed for the crash?

Like many car versus bike crashes, there is a lot of gray area.  First, consider that a bike has the right to most pedestrian areas, like the sidewalk, if it is being ridden outside the downtown Portland exclusion zone.

State statisticians put the overall cause of this particular crash as the driver's failure to yield, perhaps because drivers are supposed to have control of their vehicles at all times.

However, police never gave the driver a ticket, and the bicyclist was accused of being intoxicated. In the end the 'who's to blame' in this case has never been decided, at least publicly.

The crash happened three years ago, and the injured bicyclist sued for nearly $900,000, saying the cab driver was negligent by hitting the gas instead of the brake.

In two weeks a jury was going to hear the case, but the two sides just settled out of court. The general manager of the cab company, Steven Entler, said they begrudgingly settled for about as much as it would have cost to fight the case.      

So where would you have placed the blame?  If you need a little help deciding, you can take a look at the actual police report. (Note: this is a pdf file)


  • To learn more about nationwide cycling deaths, click here
  • To learn more about a local bike commuter injury study, click here. (The study is closed and is not accepting new participants)
  • To read a 2007 report on transportation safety in Portland, click here.
  • To contact the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, click here.
  • To view city of Portland bicycle information, click here.