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.

  • rohmen

    The one time I was hit by a car, I did not file a report. A guy right-hooked me in the loop on Franklin Street while trying to turn into the parking garage at the Sears Tower. Since I was not hurt, and the guy immediately offered to cover the costs of any repairs to my bike, I did not file a police report after he agreed to immediately email me to confirm out understanding that he would cover the repairs.

    One reason I did not bother with a report was because I knew how long it would take for Chicago police to respond (if they even would).

  • Do you think you’d file the crash report if you were injured?

  • rohmen

    If injured, yes.

    Much easier to deal with insurance (both the driver’s and your own) if you have a police report. Though as you note they often are not admissible in court, insurance adjusters definitely pay attention to them during the claim process.

  • skyrefuge

    In an Internet-fueled environment where we’re all so used to hearing “drivers” and “cyclists” as separate species pitted against each other as mortal enemies, how wonderful is it to hear two stories of drivers who, when their windows are rolled down, actually turn out to be human beings! And how when all parties act as normal, sympathetic humans do, things can be easily settled, resolved, and people can even learn new things!

    Sure, as an extreme data-nerd, it sucks to lose those bits of data from official reporting, but I agree with Veronica that the benefits of such ecumenism far outweigh that loss.

  • Renee Patten

    The first time I was hit, I did not file a report at the scene. I regretted it the day following and went to a station and filed one. I was hurt (physically and mentally) and my bike was messed up (about $200 in repairs + several trips to my doctor). I wished I had gone through insurance with the police involved rather than what ended up happening and the guy paying me off for the bike damage, which didn’t feel right once my mind cleared in the days after the accident. I also hated having to talk to him after he hit me, he could have killed me.

    I posted on Chainlink last week about a rider I saw get hit (he was hurt but not badly and his bike was not rideable) and I called 911 for him, he declined to have police respond. I was hoping he would have them come because the best thing I have had happen when police respond is that they are the ones scolding the driver and explaining what they did wrong. I don’t want to be put in that position after being hit. Trying to convince yourself you are OK, the driver hearing that, then trying to explain to them what they did wrong while frazzled sucks.

  • I broke my arm in a collision with another cyclist (using that term loosely) on the lakefront path near Chicago Ave two summers ago. She was riding all over the path with a couple of other people, and when I called out “on your left” as I approached her in the lane (she was on the very wide ‘shoulder’ of that part of the path), she swerved into me. The path is slightly slanted there, and her swerve was enough to knock me over – no damage to my bike other than ripped up grip tape, but I was in a cast up to my bicep for the rest of the summer.

    She and her friends asked if I was OK, but no one stuck around to help me get help, or volunteered their contact information. I don’t actually know if I would have been able to file a police report in this case – I definitely wasn’t calm enough to do so on my own, and with no one to help me…

  • Fred

    Irony: Last night coming home from work I almost got right-hooked by a Divvy van while riding a Divvy bike.

  • Julia

    I was suprised that Veronica, knowing how the reports are used towards influencing infrastructure, wouldn’t have filed a report after the fact. While I’m much more comfortable filing a report at the scene and with the responding officer, I once (as a new cyclist in Chicago) was talked out of it by a woman who right hooked me in Lincoln Park and didn’t want the incident reported to her insurance. Fault was clear (and I was in a marked bike lane), and my common sense kicked in about 30 min later. I filed a report in person that night, and sure enough the next day the damage to the drive side of my bike made itself apparent as I shifted. I was eventually able to use the post-crash filed report and file a claim with the woman’s insurance company (info from the crash) for the replacement derailleur.

  • chrome

    Heading East on Addison, I stopped at the red light at Ashland. When the light changed, an SUV behind me sped up and hit me in the head with their mirror before continuing on their way. Luckily I still had one foot on the ground and was wearing a helmet, so I wouldn’t constitute this as a crash… but the driver indifference bothered me so I chased the SUV and caught up with it at another red light. With the windows open, I confronted the 2 teenage girls inside. They first denied hitting me, then said “sorry, I guess?”

    Had they apologized and shown to be genuinely sorry, I wouldn’t still be thinking about this… no I did not file a report.

  • ridonrides

    I got a soft right hook. I was riding far right on State near Grand a few years ago. Construction on the Red Line had narrowed State to one lane each way. A motorist squeezed past me to turn right into a parking garage. Her side mirror contacted my left handlebar and pushed me into a traffic cone at a slow speed. I didn’t report it because I didn’t fall off and no damage done to my bike. And because the parking garage attendant saw what happened and gave the person an earful!

    Another time I did call 911 was when no physical contact occurred. A motorist, behind me, was trying to beat a red light and leaned on the horn. The motorist passed really close and got in front of me but was unable to beat the red light. When the light turned green, I stayed behind her even though I could’ve passed. And then it was a game of chicken. She slowed to a crawl even stopped in the middle of the lane hoping I would pass and then get another opportunity to buzz me or actually run me over. At least that’s what I surmised. The 911 operator did not send police because no physical harm was done and nothing could be done even though I had their license plate.


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