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Do All Bike Crashes Deserve Police Reports?

My crash report
The author's own crash report from 2007.

Crash data, more so than any other regularly collected and readily reported public data sets, shine a bright light upon the most dangerous parts of our city's streets. Crash reports tell authorities who was injured, where, and under what circumstances, and the Illinois Department of Transportation collects the same information from all police departments statewide. IDOT uses these reports "for a number of vital purposes, including crash analysis, roadway engineering improvements, safety program design, and ultimately, preventing death/injury on Illinois roadways."

Yet unlike automated counters, having good crash data relies upon people filing reports -- and in many cases, people don't. I talked with two bicyclists who recently had crashes, but declined to file reports afterwards, to understand how the current process could be improved.

Jackie lives in Wrigleyville and works in insurance. She was riding west on Van Buren on June 25th towards home, about to cross State Street. As she tells it:

A person driving a car in the right southbound lane of State Street ran the red light in an effort to turn right on Van Buren. I'm not certain, but I think her head was down -- looking at her phone, most likely. She looked up at the last second, and hit the brakes in time to hit my bike, between the fork and the downtube, with her bumper. I was thrown from the bike onto the street.

Jackie stood up, the driver asked if she was okay, and then the driver apologized "profusely." The driver pulled her car to the curb so the two could exchange contact information. Jackie said she wasn't going to visit the hospital, and the driver said she would pay for any damages to the bicycle.

Jackie says that filing a crash report was not necessary in the context of her situation.

I would say the primary reasons for not filing a police report are: not wanting to spend an extra half hour when I just wanted to go home; not wanting to waste police time when no damage was done; and not wanting to cause hardship for this girl who was extremely nice, and genuinely apologetic and scared.

Since she wasn't injured, Jackie didn't have to file a crash report. State law only requires a report when someone is injured, property damage amounts to more than $1,500, or if property damage is greater than $500 and one driver is uninsured. If you end up taking a ride in the ambulance, police officers may show up by to your hospital bed to fill out the crash report -- like they did for my report above.

Elsewhere in the Loop that day, Veronica, a civil engineer from Wicker Park, was bicycling on Wabash and about to turn left (east) onto Monroe. She said that she was riding in the left lane, still inside the CTA 'L' columns. She was following an SUV that was traveling straight. Ward describes how the crash happened:

I began to veer to the left to make my turn, but the [driver] slammed on [the car's] brakes and made a hard left turn right in front of me. I couldn't stop in time and hit the back of the car. Luckily, I had already been slowing down to make the turn, and wasn't going very fast when I hit. I mostly just crumpled into her back window.

Veronica told me she was "fine," with no injuries, but sweared after the crash, and then continued to her workplace on Monroe at Wabash. She described the driver's reaction:

The woman pulled over to the side of the road and rolled down her window and was yelling at me to come over. I did, and she was almost in tears, apologizing like crazy, and asking if i was okay, saying she never drives in the Loop, didn't realize that was her turn, and didn't see me. I told her I was fine -- just to look for bikes next time, and to use her turn signal. She kept apologizing until she drove away.

Veronica previously worked for the Chicago Department of Transportation's Bicycle Program. She said in an email, "I know how we use crash reports, and I figured it would be better to log the information in your Close Calls," a website that collects information on near-crash incidents.

She explained that, "as an engineer who works with planners, crash reports are wonderful because they are records of anything serious that happens." Since nothing serious happened to her that day, she didn't think her crash report would be a useful part of the data, calling it a "cover your ass" type of report "that you can file away in case you get sued."

Veronica said there was a personal reason why she declined to file a crash report. "I feel confident that the woman learned her lesson -- and I think that had she gotten a ticket, she may have had a more negative attitude toward bikers from then on. By just talking to her, I'm hoping she was made aware without causing a negative view of bikers."

Talking to the drivers who have hit her, Veronica said, is a "huge point for me as a cyclist in Chicago." She wants drivers "to be more [tolerant] and understanding, instead of hating every biker."

Both cases were similar not just in that they happened a few blocks apart on the same day, but neither resulted in injury or property damage, and the (arguably at-fault) drivers were apologetic and volunteered their information. Given these relatively benign circumstances, neither of the bicyclists felt compelled to spend the time and energy needed to file a crash report, which they felt would unnecessarily assign blame.

What many people might not know is that police reports don't necessarily incriminate anyone. They are inadmissible as evidence if the case does go to court, but in the meantime they're necessary if either party eventually needs to pursue an insurance claim.

However, Jackie and Veronica were correct that filing a police report does take a lot of time. Police can be slow to respond to the scene when the situation doesn't seem particularly urgent, and actually filling out the report takes not just time but also an in-depth recall of the situation. Perhaps an expedited reporting system, like the reports that 311 takes for reckless and inconsiderate taxi drivers, or that states like Colorado have for dangerous and aggressive drivers, could be developed for less severe crashes and for near-misses.

Have you ever crashed your bike, and didn't file a report? Tell us your story in the comments below.

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