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Gear Prudence: Often while biking around town, especially near construction sites, my tires snap up rocks. You know the feeling? My tire rolls over a small pebble and the sideways force sends it flying. I call it accidental stoning and I’m dying to know: Is this my fault for careless biking? And how do you respond when an angry woman pulls over her shiny new Lexus to yell at you for hitting her car, which, in all honesty, you did, but you also didn’t, the rock did … but like, does it matter? —Rock Unearthed Bruised Belligerent Lady’s Exquisite Sedan; Quarrelsome Upbraiding Administered, But Blame Lands Elsewhere
Dear RUBBLESQUABBLE: Each case turns on its specific facts, so we are not dispensing legal advice here, but according to “The Bike Lawyer,” Bruce Deming (thebikelawyer.com), in most cases, no, the cyclist is not at fault. Under the standard definition of negligence in most states (and the District), a person is only liable for damages caused by their “failure to exercise ordinary care, i.e the same caution, attention or skill that a reasonable person would use under similar circumstances.” It is hard to see how simply riding your bike on a street that has pebbles or gravel on it would violate the standard of ordinary care, given that pebbles and gravel are on all streets, and passing over them is often unavoidable. This assumes, of course, that you are not riding excessively fast on a surface covered in gravel. That might allow for an argument that you really weren’t riding prudently, and that sending a stone flying was foreseeable. “But even that would be a stretch,” according to The Bike Lawyer.
As for how to respond, that’s also highly situational. In no circumstance should you stick around if you feel like you’re being threatened with physical violence—either via fisticuffs or with a motor vehicle. If things escalate to this level, call the cops. While a driver’s impetuous anger could be considered understandable in some cases, minor unintentional surface damage to a car in no way serves as justification for that driver to attack you. Nor does her heated indignation justify you to respond in a regrettable manner. Never forget: It was just a pebble!
At the same time, there’s no need to scamper away if you don’t want to. While you don’t owe the driver anything (after all, if you weren’t negligent, it wasn’t really your fault), remaining calm and not escalating the confrontation are key. Apologizing could diffuse the situation (and might even make you feel better). Ultimately, though, it was just a pebble, and if a driver cannot accept that a minuscule bit of road detritus was bound to meet their precious car at some point, they’re living in a fantasy world and there’s only going to be so much you can do to disabuse them. —GP