When a driver suddenly turned in front of a cyclist riding down a busy street in Charleston, South Carolina, the cyclist had no way to escape the crash. The bike flipped, and he landed on the ground. Later, in front of a municipal judge, the driver didn’t want to take responsibility–a typical reaction in a bike-car collision. But this bike happened to have a mounted camera.
The cyclist handed the judge video of the crash. “The judge played it, looked at it, and then just looked straight forward and said yeah, you’re guilty,” says attorney Timmy Finch, who represented the cyclist. “And that was it.”
The fine wasn’t large–it was a ticket for failure to yield–but in the past, it was rare that drivers were ever held responsible for hitting someone on a bike. That’s true even in fatal crashes. In a 2013 study of 633 fatalities over a 12-month period, the League of American Bicyclists found that only 45% of the cases had evidence of enforcement. Only 12% resulted in a sentence.
Cameras offer some hope for change. If a cyclist is killed in a hit-and-run, the camera may be the only witness. Someone with serious injuries might lose the memory of the crash. In many collisions, even when the cyclist can recount every detail of what a driver did wrong, it can be hard to prove.
“It only just devolves into it’s your word against their word,” says Colorado cyclist Ernest Ezis, who runs a website called the Close Call Database to track bad drivers. “The motorist is highly motivated to lie, and they do, and then the cops can just wash their hands of the situation. The camera changes all of that, because it’s documentary evidence of what actually happened.”
As cameras designed for bikes or helmets become cheaper, they’re also becoming much more common–and they’re also more commonly capturing crashes, like a hit and run or a truck drifting over the white line into a bike lane and smashing into someone on a bike.
Ezis has ridden with a camera for about a year. He’s already had opportunities to use the footage.
“There are times when it’s actually more effective not to have the motorist cited,” he says. “A guy in a dump truck came within a foot of me at 60 miles per hour. It’s more effective to have the police contact the owner of the company that employs that truck driver. The owner takes it very seriously, and then he’ll educate his entire force.”
In another case, a driver was deliberately driving too close on a wide road. “I do think that there are definitely people, they basically weaponize their car and they’re trying to intimidate cyclists,” Ezis says. In that case, he shared the footage with the police to try to get a ticket issued. In Colorado, like 25 other states, has a law that says drivers must stay at least three feet from cyclists.
Video evidence can also be helpful to get a driver’s insurance company to pay out damages. Still, it’s not clear how much it will help in criminal cases. It’s still incredibly rare that a district attorney prosecutes a driver who hits a biker, partly because they’re hard cases to win and DAs don’t want a lower conviction rate.
“Jurors, who ultimately hear these cases, have a hard time with the idea that somebody who is driving who makes a mistake could end up doing time,” says California-based attorney Miles Cooper, who specializes in bike law. “That’s their view. Their view is this could be me, and texting and driving or being distracted is not necessary criminal. So when DAs have tried to do this they’ve had conviction issues. And have been a little reluctant to bring charges as a result.”
If a video doesn’t clearly show everything that happened, it also may not meet the high standard of proof in a criminal case. “The proof has to be beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s really tough,” says Bob Mionske, a former Olympian and pro cyclist who also now specializes in bike law.
Laws protecting cyclists are also weak in most states. A driver who violates the three-foot passing law–in the rare case that he or she is caught–might only be fined $100. Only three states make it a felony for drivers to maim or kill a cyclist.
But when cases do make it to court, video can make a difference, showing jurors and judges, who often aren’t cyclists themselves, a different perspective. “There’s this auto-centric culture that we have to confront in the legal system,” says Cooper. “I think video is a good step towards leveling that bias.”
Eventually, if video becomes common enough that drivers are aware of it, it might start to change driving behavior. “Right now, you can buzz a cyclist, and if they don’t have a camera, they’re probably going to get away with it,” says Ezis. “You can buzz me, I have a camera, you’re not going to get away with it. I think what has to get socialized is that it’s not one cyclist in 100. It’s 15 or 20 out of 100. Once that happens, I do think that it will be very helpful.”
Cameras can also change how some cyclists ride–if someone is aware that their footage may later be needed in court and they’re tempted to coast through a red light, they might think again.
The growing pile of terrifying videos also makes another thing clear: a simple striped bike lane on the side of the road isn’t a reliable way to protect people from a speeding, 2,000-pound car. If cameras might help support better enforcement, they also make a clear case for better street design.
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