Cyclists' helmet cams catch hit-and-run drivers

Linda Melone

It's no secret that cyclists and drivers have a rocky relationship. Drivers claim cyclists don't obey the rules of the road, and cyclists often feel bullied by drivers. In 2010, more than 600 cyclists were killed in crashes with cars in the U.S., according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Whether an accident with a cyclist raises your auto insurance rates depends on the details, such as who was at fault. If no one witnesses the crash, it often comes down to the word of the driver versus the cyclist.

Smile, you're on camera!

To defend themselves, some cyclists have started wearing small video cameras on their helmets, the type used by skiers, surfers and other athletes to record their performance. These cameras act as little "black boxes," like those installed on airplanes, recording events in real time. The cameras cost roughly $100 to $300 apiece.

Cyclists hope the cameras will cut down on hit-and-run incidents, once drivers learn they may be filmed. The cameras already have helped track down several hit-and-run drivers but are not widely used yet, according to a bicycle accident attorney.

In the California city of Berkeley, two cyclists were knocked off their bikes in April 2012 by a hit-and-run driver, suffering minor injuries. One cyclist recorded the whole episode with his helmet video camera. The recording captured the license plate number of the driver, who then was tracked down by police and arrested.

Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau, says: "With a video, you can establish the legitimacy of the event, which is always a challenge."

Is hit-and-run a felony?

Even if the collision was purely an accident, leaving the scene of an accident if someone is injured is a third-degree felony in all states, punishable by up to five years in prison, says Randy Reep, a defense attorney in Florida. Reep is working on three hit-and-run cases involving cyclists, none of whom was wearing a helmet camera.

“If a cyclist breaks the traffic law and the driver hits him, (the driver) may not be at fault in the accident, but he is required to stop," Reep says.

If the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs – a common reason why hit-and-run drivers flee an accident scene -- and killed a cyclist in an accident, he wouldn't necessarily be charged with vehicular homicide. Prosecutors would have to prove that the accident was caused by a drunken or drugged driver, Reep says.

The cyclist and the driver

If you're the cycling victim, your uninsured motorist coverage kicks in if you're struck by a hit-and-run driver, even though you're not in your car, says Bruce Robins, president of Robins Insurance Agency Inc. in Tennessee. Uninsured motorist coverage applies any time you can't identify the driver of a vehicle that injures you or a family member. You don’t have to be in your vehicle to claim uninsured motorist coverage, so it benefits you whether you’re in your car, you're walking or you're cycling.

Although it's optional, your insurer must offer uninsured motorist coverage, Robins says, and you've got to sign a statement if you refuse it.

Of course, if an injured cyclist doesn't have auto insurance, that's not an option. "There's no coverage under your homeowner’s insurance, either," Robins says. A cyclist's health insurance can cover treatment of injuries, though.

If you're the driver who accidentally runs into a cyclist, your auto liability insurance would compensate a victim of your carelessness if you're sued, until your liability limit is reached, says Kevin Lynch, associate professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania. The liability portion of the driver’s insurance would cover the cyclist’s medical expenses.

A collision with a bicyclist can affect your auto insurance premiums. "An at-fault accident can raise your premiums by 10 percent to 25 percent above your original policy," Robins says.

And it could get worse -- your insurer may drop you when your policy renewal date rolls around if you're determined to be at fault and the cyclist dies. And if you can’t find a company willing to insure you, you may be forced to get coverage from a costly high-risk pool in your state.

Umbrella coverage

Drivers also may want to consider an umbrella policy, which adds an extra layer of liability protection, says Ron Reitz, president of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. Umbrella coverage typically costs about $150 to $300 a year for a $1 million policy.

An umbrella policy covers your home and car, and would kick in if you hit a cyclist and he sues you. "Otherwise, if you're sued for a million dollars when you have only $100,000 worth of coverage, you'd have to sell your house," Reitz says.

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