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Capitol Bike Accident Reveals Cyclists' Challenges in D.C.

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Emily Estus' daily bicycle route to work includes a stretch along the Capitol grounds, but her commute took a turn for the worse one day in April.  

As the 23-year-old D.C. resident rode on the north side of the Capitol through the parking area along Constitution Avenue, a regular pathway for cyclists, she collided with a car as it turned into a parking spot. “I went over her hood and landed on my face," Estus said in a Tuesday phone interview, noting that her tooth punctured her lip and she suffered a concussion.  

Estus and the driver agreed not to seek insurance claims from each other. But while Estus sat in the emergency room, a U.S. Capitol Police officer arrived and handed her a speeding ticket.  

"I was less than thrilled,” she said. According to Estus, the officer's explanation for the ticket was, “if I had not been speeding I would have been able to slow down.”  

A police report on the April 23 accident said Estus "stated she was traveling too fast to stop." Estus couldn't remember what she told police, noting in the interview that "everything was a blur" and that she didn't believe she exceeded the speed limit. The ticket was ultimately dropped when, according to Estus, the officer failed to appear at a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing, where she contested the ticket.  

Although this issue was resolved, biking advocates said Estus' accident and subsequent ticket is indicative of the challenges facing bikers on Capitol Hill and across the District.  

Bruce Deming, an Arlington, Va., lawyer who focuses on bike accidents, said collisions at the Capitol are unique because it's often the Capitol Police or the U.S. Park Police who respond to the scene.  

“In my experience, sometimes those officers are not as well trained as the Metropolitan Police Department and some of the other officers in the area in how to properly investigate bicycle accidents,” Deming said.  

The issue of officers who are not well-versed in D.C. bike laws is prevalent throughout the city, according to biking advocates. The District is home to 26 different law enforcement agencies, which presents a potential challenge to bicyclists who are becoming an increasing presence on D.C. roadways.  

“Bicycling has exploded in this city," said Greg Billing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. "It’s grown by about 450 percent in the last decade. ... We need the agencies to be more educated on what the current law says."  

Billing said the WABA has been working to set up meetings with federal agencies, but has not had much success. He noted it had been at least a year since the group had reached out to the Capitol Police.  

A Capitol Police spokeswoman said Tuesday that when it comes to biking on Capitol Hill, the department focuses on ensuring pedestrians the right-of-way and making sure that cyclists are operating their bikes safely.  

"We actually have crash investigators on the department that are specifically trained in handling bicycle crashes,” Lt. Jessica Baboulis said in a phone interview. The bike-specific training involves analyzing the physics of crashes, such as distance and speed of a bike.  

Baboulis also said the department is "always monitoring any changes to the law,” and its officers often have the District's Department of Transportation bike law pocket guide on hand to use and provide to cyclists.  

"There are so many different mechanisms to come to the grounds," Baboulis said. "So it’s very important to us to constantly be communicating to our community”  

The Capitol Police updated its bicycle regulations in December, which included clarifying that any bike parked in a public area doesn't need a Senate or House permit.  

Billing said most of the issues with the Capitol Police have been over bike parking, and the number of crashes around the Capitol is “relatively minimal" given that it is a small segment of the District. There were some 560 bicycle-motor vehicle crashes in D.C. in 2012, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Billing noted it's difficult to break that number down by specific area given the lag in data pertaining to bike crashes.  

But, as in Estus' case, the biker is often blamed for the accident, Billing said.  

"Her situation is not uncommon, in which a bicycle and vehicle are involved in a crash and the bias of who is at fault ... lies heavily on the bicyclist,” Billing said.  

Deming, the lawyer who specializes in bike accident claims, said part of the bias stems from motorists and police officers who become frustrated with reckless cyclists. So he reminds his fellow cyclists to obey the traffic rules.  

But Deming said the onus is also on law enforcement to thoroughly investigate the accident. One major issue he often encounters is inaccurate or incomplete police reports pertaining to bike accidents around the Capitol and National Mall.  

“I see that quite a bit up there," Deming said, "and that’s unfortunate because the police report is often the very first thing that an insurance adjuster sees.”  

Deming said his main concerns are with the Park Police, not the Capitol Police, but added, “It’s fair to say that all police need to be educated."  

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