In Car v. Bike Crashes, Why Are Charges So Rare?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on November 12, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Cars and bicycles have never enjoyed a storybook relationship when it comes to sharing the road. But some worry that when the two collide (literally), the driver is often able to avoid criminal charges even when the crash kills or seriously injures the cyclist.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, San Francisco resident Daniel Duane laid out a number of anecdotes from bikers around the country with one common thread: When cyclists were hit by cars, "no charges, no citation."

Why this "no charges" trend?

Discretion on Filing Charges Against Drivers

As Duane's Times article points out, "[w]hen two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well to blame." But even with two drivers, this determination doesn't typically lead to criminal charges.

There are some criminal acts that are clearly defined in some accidents -- DUI and hit and run to name a few. But the more mundane crashes that involve sober, conscientious drivers do not easily give rise to prosecution.

Part of the reason is prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutors can choose not to file charges, or may eventually drop charges for a number of reasons. For example, many car v. bike crashes lack evidence or resources to prosecute. One attorney who represents bicyclists told the Times that prosecutors have trouble getting convictions in these types of cases because "jurors identify with drivers" and are sympathetic to their mistakes.

Prosecutors don't simply file charges in cases they believe they can win, they have an ethical duty not to charge unless there is probable cause to support the criminal offense. This duty, along with an unclear evaluation of fault, may be enough to keep many drivers in bike crashes out of criminal court.

Drivers Can Still Be Held Liable

It is a bit alarmist and more than a bit inaccurate to declare that because a driver is not charged criminally, the justice system now "supports" killing cyclists.

Criminal charges are often not filed in car v. bike collisions because the civil courts are more than prepared to handle these claims. Far from off the hook, drivers are often in court for millions of dollars in damages in these cases -- especially when a biking child is hurt or killed by a driver's negligence.

While criminal charges make these sorts of civil claims for crashes easier to prove, the sad fact is that injurious or even deadly consequences of crashes often do not rise to the level of criminal conduct.

Our civil tort system is designed to deal with cases where fault cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and where the penalty is monetary, not the deprivation of freedom.

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