Friday's ACT Supreme Court judgment, by which a cyclist injured as a result of negligence by another cyclist was awarded nearly $1.7 million, serves as a warning about the need for the community to have systems of traffic liability insurance in place that embrace cyclists, in just the same way that third-party motor vehicle insurance is required for cars driving on the roads. Cyclists are more usually the victims of collisions, not the direct cause of them. This is a reason, perhaps, why an insurance premium might be lower than with car insurance. But there will be occasions when they are responsible for damage suffered by others, whether in dedicated bikes lanes, ordinary roadways, even on footpaths and in pedestrian malls. The injury can be to motorists, sometimes, as on Friday, to other cyclists, and sometimes to pedestrians.
The pair had been driving in the bikes-only lane on Capital Circle when the bike of the defendant, a little ahead of and to the left of the plaintiff's, struck a gardening stake on the bike path, and wobbled. The defendant and his bike fell to his right, knocking over the plaintiff and sending him skidding on to the road proper, where he was run over by a car. Although there could be arguments about the extent of the defendant's negligence and civil liability for serious and lasting injury, it is quite plain that the risk of liability is real, and that, these days, serious injury can lead to enormous damages.
The case is not, of itself, any cause for reprise of familiar – indeed somewhat tedious – arguments for the registration of bicycles, or demands that they be taxed, in some manner, for their use of the roads. Cyclists are citizens, and taxpayers, by also being, as often as not, drivers who contribute to the excise.
But it does invite questions. Should all cyclists, as a matter of prudence, insure themselves against liability for injury caused by negligence as a cyclist? Has the community as a whole, probably represented by the ACT Legislative Assembly, a right to insist on such insurance? The questions are different. The first helps a negligent cyclist from losing his or her assets in a liability settlement. The second helps anyone hurt by the negligence of a cyclist, whether the individual cyclist herself or himself has the assets to pay. Experience shows that defendants must take plaintiffs as they find them, and, sometimes, even minor negligence can cause liability for many millions.
Certainly cyclists should have insurance protection against liability to others, in their own interests as much as for the victims of anyone they negligently injure. It seems that some already do, whether as a benefit of membership of some organisation, or, perhaps, because they have coverage as a part of broader insurance, for example against public liability, flood, fire and theft of houses. A child, moreover, is as capable of causing an accident as an adult; insurance schemes should reach out to cover all cycles, and all cyclists, even if, normally, the bikes are used only for play or inside residential leases.
Likewise, members of the public deserve a right to damages where negligence is clear. But it is not so clear that the best scheme would involve anything as cumbersome as a secondary third-party insurance scheme. Far better for government to put pressure on insurance companies to make coverage a standard feature of household insurance contracts, perhaps supplemented by some levy on the sale of bicycles. It is, of course, a national problem, and probably best addressed as such.