The Riding Reporter: a ride with the bicycle lawyer
Interviewee: Bob Anderton
Riding style: Commuting
His ride: One of his six bikes is a Dutch Azor "Opa" bike.
"People are a lot nicer to you when you are on one of these bikes."
A photo frame made out of a bicycle chain, a crankset wall clock, a bicycle wire sculpture, and a burly Dutch "Opa" bike in the corner. These are hardly the items one would expect to find in an attorney's office but Bob Anderton's office on Pioneer Square is filled with them.
A long time bike-commuter himself, Anderton is Seattle's premier bike lawyer who represents cyclists in and around the Seattle area.
In relation to the number of bicycle accidents and fatalities we've seen in Seattle lately, I became curious about the city's bicycle laws. When I learned that there are specialized "bicycle lawyers", I contacted Anderton from Washington Bike Law to learn more about this niche practice.
Anderton agreed to let me join him on his daily bike commute from downtown Seattle to his West Seattle home.
Born in Wisconsin, Anderton grew up in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa for his undergraduate and law degree.
"I went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa and lived on Iowa Avenue," he said.
Anderton and his girlfriend (now wife) came to Seattle in the early 1990s.
While his first passion was public interest law, Anderton started his career practicing personal injury law.
His first job was at a workmen's compensation firm, followed by a stint as a canvasser for Greenpeace. He then worked for personal injury attorney David Roth and decided in 1999 to go off on his own.
"Representing bicyclists specifically wasn't an agenda. There are a lot of people now who are advertising and marketing towards bikers but I didn't do that. It happened organically," Anderton said.
"I ride a bike and somehow more and more bicyclists started coming to me. I have been representing injured people since 1992. And I think there were a few bicyclists back then and now I think it's about 90 percent of what we do.
"I think other lawyers are starting to realize that this is a practice area they want. Unfortunately, there seems to be enough work to go around, especially recently."
I asked him why he thinks we've seen so many bicycle accidents in recent months and Anderton said it's likely a combination of nice weather, more bikers, and aggravated drivers.
"I guess it was a matter of time," he said. "Everyday there are opportunities for impact and the risks of error are higher on a bike."
Representing bike messengers, commuters, recreational bikers as well as racers, Anderton has seen all sorts of incidents.
Bikers get doored, backed into, broadsided, sideswept...you name it, he's seen it.
"In the cases you've handled, is it always the car's fault?," I asked.
"Wouldn't that be nice," Anderton said. "I drafted legislation to always make it the car's fault, which is what we call strict liability."
There are strict liability laws for things like dog bites. It is always the attacking dog's fault unless the dog was provoked. In the case of bicyclists getting hit by cars, the strict liability would place the car driver at fault but defense arguments could be that it was dark and the bicyclist didn't have any lights or the bicyclist got hit after running a red light, etc.
"If we started out assuming it was the car's fault, [drivers] are going to be more aware and there will be less people who get too close to bikers. We often see people who may or may not be victims of road rage - cars trying to scare bikers or run them down. But likewise you see people do really stupid things when they're riding a bike and it's upsetting."
Anderton said he doesn't anticipate a strict liability law to pass any time soon in Seattle.
"And in the end it doesn't matter who is in the right when you're dead," Anderton said quoting his father.
Anderton said he's not sure if more laws would necessarily make Seattle streets any safer.
"Are more laws going to be helpful? In some places it could be. But I think we need to clarify the laws we already have. A lot of people and even the police in Seattle don't understand what the laws are for bicyclists. Many of the people we represent get tickets after they have been hit. People just don't know what the laws are right now. I think step one would be to educate the people on what the law is," Anderton said.
With that said, I asked Anderton to clarify the laws for us.
Where to ride
"There is no law that says that bikes must act like cars. There is a law that says bicyclists have all the rights of a motorvehicle except those laws that have no application to bicycles," Anderton said.
"Seattle has better laws than other municipalities," he added. "We can ride on the street and the side walk. And it's nice to have the option. But if you're going to ride 20 miles per hour, you should ride on the road. When on the sidewalk, you should yield to the more vulnerable, give an audible notice when passing, and yield to pedestrians."
Anderton also said that as a biker you have the right to go to the front of the line of cars at intersections.
Bike Lanes and Sharrows
"The city is still figuring out what works and what doesn't," said Anderton.
"I'm personally a fan of physically separated bike lanes. Sharrows don't help anybody. They mean nothing legally. What they are suppose to do is increase awareness but you're allowed to be in any other lane as a cyclist."
"Second Avenue, where my office is, has probably the dummest bike lane in Seattle. It's on the left side. And I don't even have a count of how many clients I have gotten from that lane but it's a lot of them," Anderton said.
"The problem is that you're getting doored by passengers, not by drivers. Drivers can be pretty oblivious when they open a door but passengers are utterly and completely oblivious. They still have the same duties as a driver to look before opening your door. The other thing about second avenue is that people have to turn through the lane. So somebody will pass you and unintentionally turn right in front of you or it you and people in the bike lane think they're safe. So my piece of advice for riding downtown: Stay the hell out of that bike lane"
"You can legally ride two people across but should you ride two abreast when there's a car behind you? No you should not, you should allow people to pass around you.
Go as far to the right as is safe. Likewise they have a duty to give you enough space when they pass you. It comes down to being nice," said Anderton.
"You have to wear one in King County. It is included in the King County Health Code. It's bizarre where they put [the law] but it's in there," Anderton said.
"Is it going to protect you? I have seen people who have died from head injuries who were wearing a helmet but it's better than nothing."
"Lights are required on bikes during the hours of darkness. You need a front light but you don't legally need a rear light but you should," said Anderton.
"Apparently it's rare to be hit from the rear but I have represented plenty of people who were hit from the rear. It's something I worry about more as it's something you can't control. At least if you see a car coming for you head on, you could move out of the way."
"Washington code defines brakes as a mechanism capable of causing the wheel to skid on dry pavement. Technically a fixed gear does have a brake mechanism and it's legal to ride a fixed gear bike on the streets," Anderton said.
"You're not allowed to have headphones when you operate a motor vehicle but a bike isn't a motor vehicle. Should you? That depends on how capable you are and your surroundings. It certainly reduces your ability to perceive what can here you," said Anderton.
Legal versus practical
"I think there's a kind of hierarchy of the things you need to be concerned about and the first is safety," Anderton said. "Sometimes there are things you do that are illegal that are safer than the things you can do that are legal."
Anderton added that an example of this is riding outside a bike lane to stay away from car doors or to be more visible.
"It all comes down to being nice and safe," he said. "The road is for everybody. Be nice, give people space, and pay attention," Anderton said in closing.
"One thing I'd like to remind people is that there are statistics that show you're more likely to have health improvements from bicycling than you are to be injured or lose your life riding your bike."
The Riding Reporter is a feature series in which BNT's bike-riding reporter, Anne-Marije Rook takes, takes interviewees on a short bike ride around town to talk bicycles, transit, and any other issues that may arise when seeing the city from a two-wheeled point of view. Previous interviewees include Mayor Mike McGinn, ultra-cyclist Chris Ragsdale, bike messenger world champion Craig Etheridge, Chuck Ayer from Cascade Bicycle Club, and more.
You can now follow the Riding Reporter on facebook.