Protect yourself: What every bicyclist needs to know about car insurance

It’s a well-known fact that many crashes involving bicyclists go unreported, and that many bicyclists involved in crashes don’t seek the medical treatment they may need

BikePGH recently talked with Ralston Jackson, a local lawyer about this and what we can do to change the status quo. The conversation touched on two important things:

  1. Regardless of whether or not you have health or car insurance, what you should always do if you are involved in a crash while riding your bike.
  2. What type of car insurance you should carry to further protect yourself, regardless of whether or not you own a car. (Note: please see update below – Bicycling Insurance now offered nationwide as of July 5, 2012).

For those of you who are covered by motor vehicle insurance, your “first party benefits” (including medical benefits) and underinsured and uninsured coverage will cover you if you suffer an injury that involves a motor vehicle, whether you are a pedestrian, or riding a bicycle, or in a car. You may have such coverage even if you don’t own a car yourself if you live with a relative who does own a car or if you carry “non-owner’s” car insurance. If you don’t have such coverage, the medical benefits of any vehicle involved in the injury will cover you. These medical benefits apply no matter who caused the injury. Even if it’s your fault, you are covered. Motor vehicle medical benefits are no-fault.

For multiple reasons, and quite understandably, many bicyclists who are hit by motorists simply don’t report the crash. Often if we’re not too injured to call 911, we’re dazed, have adrenaline coursing through our system, we’re afraid of incurring medical expenses, or in some cases even embarrassed. It’s a fight or flight thing and most of the time we just want to get out of a bad situation. But we need to fight that urge. We need to stay put, make sure the police and ambulance are called, and get checked out at a hospital.

Going to the hospital is very important

In the state of Pennsylvania, the only things that automatically trigger a police report related to an on-street crash are 1. a vehicle tow and 2. an injury/potential injury. Well I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone towing a bike. So that leaves us needing to get checked out at the hospital in order for the police to issue a report. Let me put it another way: By choosing to not go to the hospital we aren’t doing anyone any favors — not ourselves, not other bicyclists, and not the bicycle advocacy movement as a whole. Lots of times victims of crashes don’t know they’re injured until hours later or even the next day. Many victims don’t realize that car insurance will pay for a trip to the hospital and treatment regardless of whether or not the bicyclist has health insurance. Furthermore, by choosing to not to take an ambulance to the hospital, we are letting yet another bike crash go unreported by the police. No specific crash data will be taken and even more time will go by without anyone knowing for sure how many crashes involving bikes there are in Pittsburgh. Therefore no infrastructure or enforcement changes are made and everything remains status quo.

We need to stress the part about insurance once again because we hear from far too many people that they are afraid to incur medical expenses due to not carrying health insurance. If you are injured by a motor vehicle or a motor vehicle causes you to crash there are three potential sources of coverage that pay medical bills before any health insurance would apply: First, your own car insurance, second, if you have none, then the motor vehicle insurance of any relative you live with, and, third, if there is no coverage from these two, then from the insurance of any motor vehicle involved in the injury.  All registered motor vehicle are required to carry a minimum of $5,000 in medical coverage for each person injured in a collision, so it is rare to have no coverage. This coverage will pay for your trip to the hospital and any related medical expenses you incur up to their maximum amount of coverage before health insurance takes over. Occasionally, but fairly rarely, are people hit by cars driven by people without insurance so the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that there will be car insurance money to pay for your medical expenses.

Carrying car-insurance can further protect you

The case of uninsured or underinsured drivers, however, is where carrying car insurance or carrying “non-owner’s” car insurance can actually protect you further. If you own a car make sure that two of the a la cart insurance options you purchase is uninsured and underinsured motorist insurance. If you’re not sure if you have this insurance or how much you have allocated, simply take a look at your car insurance declarations page from your car insurance company. Non-owner’s insurance will allow you to carry un/under insurance without needing to own a car. It’s not very intuitive for the car-less to carry insurance, but it can protect you in the event of a crash. Remember, no two insurance policies are alike so shop around and ask lots of questions, and even give the insurance agent various scenarios to see if you will be covered in those situations.

The other very important choice you want to make with regard to your insurance is to elect to have “full tort” coverage. Many states don’t even offer the consumers the choice between limited and full tort coverage, but unfortunately good ol’ Pennsylvania does. But by choosing “limited tort” coverage you give up the right to sue for pain and suffering as a result of a car crash in the state of Pennsylvania, even if you’re a bicyclist or pedestrian. Limited tort is a bit cheaper, but this is not where you want to skimp.

So let’s recap

  1. If you’re hit while riding your bike, a motor vehicle causes you to wreck, or even if it’s your fault, make sure an ambulance is called and you go to the hospital. Your car insurance, or the motorist’s car insurance will pay for your trip to the hospital. Do not worry about lack of health insurance. Get checked out!
  2. If you own a car, make sure you carry uninsured and underinsured motorist insurance and elect the “full tort” option.  If you don’t own a car, purchase “non-owner’s” insurance and elect to carry these same options to protect you even further in the event you’re in a crash. Remember to shop around and ask a lot of questions.

If you have any questions for us that you would like us to followup on with Ralston Jackson or with insurance companies please post them in the comments section.

Update: As of July 5, 2012 Better World Club and Gales Creek Insurance Services have teamed up to offer nationwide bicycling insurance called BIKEon. More info here.

Not a member of BikePGH? Join today! We need you to add your voice! Bike Pittsburgh works to protect cyclist’s rights and promote the vision of making Pittsburgh a safer and more enjoyable place to live and to ride. For more info, check out:


  • dwillen says:

    All this is only valid for people with PA insurance. If the relative you live with carries auto insurance for their car registered in Ohio or New York, for example, the insurance company will likely tell you to bug off. Same with the car that hits you; many states don’t have no-fault medical coverage, and you will have to prove fault to get the insurance companies to pay out.

    Summary: get insurance in the state you live in, and make sure the place your car is parked matches what the insurance company has on file.

  • dcm229 says:

    This is a great article, I hope it encourages and reminds more cyclists to report accidents and get checked out – not only for their own sake, but for the sake of their fellow cyclists out there.

  • velomuse says:

    I had an experience getting hit in the summer of 2009, and not having car insurance (nor a car/driver’s license) – it defaulted to someone in my household’s car insurance (no-fault?), even though the guy who hit me admitted fault due to texting while driving and making an illegal left turn. His insurance only kicked in after $5000 of medical expenses had accumulated on my household member’s auto insurance. I got a lawyer for surplus expenses/damages as well as pain and suffering.

    It ended up about even, but I’m still not confident riding in traffic anymore. How do you put a price tag on that?

  • rachel_ding says:

    There’s something I want to add, especially for people who have been in a crash and are looking for pain and suffering money. Written into many health or car insurance plans (and probably other types of plans, too) is a thing called “subrogation.” I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding of it is this: Let’s say you crash and you have health insurance but no car insurance, and your medical bills cost $10,000 and your health insurance paid for all of it. Your lawyer gets you $15,000 in pain and suffering money. Subrogation is when your insurance company can actually take back their $10,000 from your pain and suffering money, leaving you with only $5,000. They’ll only take it if you actually get money.

    Just something to keep in mind! Subrogation is probably not something that most people check for when buying a plan – usually the rates, coverage, deductibles, etc. are more important for the long-term… but watch out for it!

  • scott says:

    Update: As of July 5, 2012 Better World Club and Gales Creek Insurance Services are offering bicycling insurance. Read more here

  • Xuth says:

    This would be exactly why we need to push for a law that states that _all_ accidents involving bicycles and pedestrians warrant a police report like in many other states.

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