New York Times: A New Breed of Lawyers Focuses on Bicyclists’ Rights

This New York Times profile of Steve Vaccaro and Adam White was written before they joined to form the Law Office of Vaccaro and White, New York’s leading bicycle accident firm.

One recent day, the lawyers there parsed bike-law issues, like “dooring zones” and when is it legally acceptable to ride outside a designated lane, while downstairs, each of their bikes were expertly locked to a scaffold along Broadway in TriBeCa.

The small firm is preparing to bring a class-action suit against New York City on behalf of cyclists over summons handed out for what it contends are phantom violations — bike behavior that it says is not illegal in the city. It is another sign that New York’s bike fights are moving from the streets to the courtroom.

When it comes to bike law, it seems, the wheels of justice no longer grind slowly. Since a ticketing blitz early this year, cyclists in New York have faced stepped-up police enforcement of red-light and other, less-obvious rules, like having adequate lights or not riding with earphones in both ears.

Add to that a highly publicized lawsuit challenging a bike lane along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, thrown out by a judge last week, and bike law can seem like a growing opportunity for lawyers who make bikes their business.

Cyclists have reported being ticketed for equipment violations like riding without a bell. A bell is required by law — though an unscientific street survey indicated that, for many riders, their voices are their only warning systems. Others have been ticketed for riding without a helmet (not required for adults), and in one widely reported case, for riding with a purse hung over the handlebars. A Police Department spokesman later said the summons should not have been issued. The department did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the helmet violation.

Many cyclists are confused about their rights, which is where the new breed of bike lawyers comes in. One common question: are cyclists required to ride in a bike lane if one is available?

“There are 101 reasons that a cyclist might be outside of a bike lane,” said Steve Vaccaro, an avid cyclist. But aside from the obvious ones — to avoid a hazard or obstruction — it’s “highly contextual,” he added.

For example, it is legal to leave the bike lane to make a turn, and cyclists are allowed to prepare to make a turn by getting to the appropriate side of the street. But just where one can move out of the lane — 50 yards away, or two blocks, perhaps — is not specified.

While it is a good idea to be aware of the rules, he said, a rider would still have to explain the reason in court if ticketed.

“It’s not unrealistic to enforce traffic laws,” Mr. Vaccaro said. But he contends that the police have been issuing tickets based on sections of the state’s traffic law — for example, requiring riders to keep right or preventing them from riding two abreast — that he said do not apply in New York City. This is the basis of the class-action suit.

Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, disputed that tickets were handed out in error. “Police officers write summonses for observed violations,” he said. “Although some cyclists are surprised to discover it, they must comply in most instances with the same rules that apply to motorists.”

Regardless of how the planned suit turns out, does taking a legalistic view of cycling sap its fun?

Not for Mr. Vaccaro. He recently quit a large corporate firm after 14 years.

“I’m doing it full speed ahead,” Mr. Vaccaro said of his bike work.

Our Partners In Advocacy