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Bicycle lawyers finding new clients in injured cyclists

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Chris Cook liked his plan to save money on gas and be environmentally conscious by riding his bike six miles to work - until the second time the electrical engineer bounced off the grille of a vehicle.

"The first time I got hit I made the mistake of not calling the police," said Cook. "The second time I made sure that was the first thing I did after I got off the ground."

Cook, of Boise, became one of a growing number of commuter cyclists turned into hood ornaments, a trend noticed by attorneys - especially attorneys who are also cyclists - who in state after state are touting their own cycling credentials as much as their legal skills on web sites to bruised bike riders.

"I have talked to more commuters who have been in car-bicycle incidents in the last year and a half than I have in the previous 10 years," said Kurt Holzer, a Boise-based attorney and cyclist who said he's won several cases that have exceeded the vehicle driver's $100,000 insurance coverage.

Bob Anderton, a Seattle-based lawyer who bikes to work, said his business has climbed to 80 percent injured cyclists.

"It's through the roof, it's terrible," he said. "People are just getting hit all the time."

The two are among what appears to be a growing number of attorneys actively seeking cyclists injured in collisions with vehicles.

"I think a lot of states have guys who specialize in that," said Mike Colbach, an attorney based in Portland, Ore., who last year won a $550,000 settlement for an injured cyclist.

"It's almost never the cyclist's fault, and they tend to get pretty significantly injured," he said. "Wrist, arm, and unfortunately sometimes brain injuries from hitting their head."

The Idaho Transportation Department reported 333 bicycle-car collisions in 2006, the most in a steadily growing trend over the last five years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported late last month that in 2006 an estimated 44,000 "pedalcyclists," mainly bicyclists, were injured in traffic crashes, and that 773 were killed. Those numbers are down about 2 percent from 2005, though the number of injured cyclists contacting lawyers appears to be increasing.

"People are less willing to just take it," said Elizabeth Preston, director of communications with the League of American Bicyclists, which promotes bicycle riding and recently started a legal network to connect lawyers with cyclists involved in accidents. "They're not going to be hit and just walk away - if they can walk away."

In Oregon in 2006, 14 cyclists were killed in collisions with vehicles, the most in the last five years. Overall last year, the state had the second most cycle-vehicle collisions in the last five years.

"My sense is more and more people are looking at bikes as an option to get to work and get some exercise," said Mike Mason, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "Saving money not only on gas, but wear and tear on their cars."

The Washington State Department of Transportation reported that vehicle collisions with cyclists have stayed relatively steady - in the 1,250 range annually - in the last five years. Of those hit last year, 123 were unable to leave the scene under their own power, and six died.

Each state reported that bicyclists are nearly always injured to some extent when colliding with vehicles.

"Think about what a car weighs and what a person on a bicycle weighs," said Rick Ohnsman of the Idaho State Police, who said he's noticed more bicyclists on the road. "The simple physics of the deal, and there's really nothing between you and the pavement."

Attorneys who represent injured cyclists say they face unique challenges, one of them overcoming a perception among some drivers, juries, and occasionally police that bicyclists don't belong on the road at all.

"It's a car culture," said Holzer. "There's this sense that the car didn't do anything wrong - it's the cyclist."

Anderton said police reports are sometimes one-sided.

"If a bicyclist gets hit, (the cyclist) often leaves the scene - they're sent to the hospital," said Anderton. "Who's left? The driver, and they say, 'Oh, he jumped the curb and ran into me."'

He's also represented cyclists who contacted him only after receiving a bill from the driver's insurance company wanting payment for damage to a vehicle.

And he said he's represented cyclists who were intentionally hit by drivers, though he downplays that angle because it's difficult to get insurance companies to cover intentional acts.

"I've gone so far as to call someone negligently suffering from road rage," he said. "In Seattle, our traffic is a nightmare. It's annoying to be struck in traffic, but you can't take it out on a bicyclist."

Attorneys say injured cyclists do have one advantage in court in that they tend not to be viewed by juries as people trying to work the system for a big jackpot.

"Bicyclists are really the exception to the bias," said Anderton. "They are not malingerers; they want to be on their bicycle. I find my clients tend to under-treat rather than over-treat. I like that. I think most people who are sitting on a jury like that."

Even when cyclists escape serious injury, Holzer said insurance companies balk at paying to replace a bicycle that can be worth more than the car that hit it.

The second driver who ran into Cook was cited for failure to yield, Cook said, and her insurance company ended up paying $3,000 to replace his bike, which ended up underneath a Ford Expedition, and another $150 to replace his high-end helmet.

Cook said he wasn't sure how he jumped clear, and didn't know what the medical bills were for his trip to the emergency room, where he was treated and checked for a head injury before being released.

Holzer advised against a lawsuit in that case because he said the insurance company did everything right.

Dave Carlson, director of public and government affairs for AAA of Idaho, said the problem for even alert motorists who don't mind sharing the road is that bicyclists can travel fast and are hard to see. Still, he expects more of them on the road along with more scooters and motorcycles.

"I think it's quite likely that if gasoline prices hold, that we would expect to see a more varied mix on the highways," he said.

That means bicycle attorneys will likely continue to find clients. Cook said he hopes he's not among them, though he's recently had narrow escapes riding on downtown Boise's Capitol Boulevard.

"I've had a couple close calls where someone will almost have their side-view mirror touch your arm," he said.

Anderton, who rides through Seattle traffic, said he has close calls on a daily basis but still prefers the exercise of biking to work.