2014 will go down in bicycle history as the year that the Bike Law networkbegan expanding in a big way. The brainchild of South Carolina bicycle accident attorney Peter Wilborn, the Bike Law network had its beginnings in 1998, when Wilborn opened the first Bike Law offices in South Carolina and Maryland. A few years later, North Carolina attorney Ann Groningermet Peter, and Ann brought North Carolina into the Bike Law network. And then, this year, Peter decided it was time to expand nationwide. To date, the Bike Law network has been established in sixteen states, and continues to grow.
I recently caught up with Peter to talk about the Bike Law network, his vision, and the road ahead.
Bob: Peter, you’ve been a South Carolina bicycle accident lawyer since 1998. One of the things that distinguishes attorneys in the Bike Law network is that we are all cyclists. How long have you been cycling? And how did you get involved in cycling?
Peter: I was a “Breaking Away” kid. The year was 1979: I was 12 years old and shaved my legs before I had leg hair to shave. A veteran racer took me under his wing, loaned me his beat-up Benotto, and taught me to ride. Those were the days of tubular tires, no helmets, and beautiful bikes.
I’ve been hooked since. I’ve ridden recreationally (and raced a little), toured in many countries, and ridden to school and work almost every day. I lived in Geneva, Switzerland for three years in my 20s, riding the Juras and Alps and living car-free in a city that gets it. Paradise.
I moved to Charleston, SC in 1996. I think an appropriate word is bathos (the abrupt plunge from the sublime to the ordinary). Charleston, like most places back then, had no provisions for everyday cycling and dangerous recreational riding. We’ve been working on it!
Bob: Living car-free in Geneva does sound nice. What a great way to spend your 20s! I raced a bit in Europe back in the day, and I can definitely relate to the car-free living. And you started riding about a year before me—except nobody took me under their wing. They took me out on rides, all right, but then they tried to drop me!
All the long-time riders have watched the metamorphosis of cycling, going from a fringe activity to something so mainstream that it’s often called “the new golf.” Even though you had quite a plunge going from Geneva to Charleston, it’s great that we have you in the South, making the changes needed. Was your love of cycling the impetus for establishing Bike Law and representing injured cyclists?
Peter: My career changed in 1998, when my 28-year old brother Jim was killed on his bicycle by an under-aged driver running a red light. My family found the best lawyer in that town, and the first question he asked was “Did Jim have a DUI?” With my grieving family around the conference table, we looked at him with horror. He clarified: “Well, why else was he on a bike?”
From that point I pledged to combine my avocation with my vocation; I took my first bike case that year, five or so more the following year, and more and more every year since.
Bob: That’s a tragic story, compounded by the attorney’s insensitive approach to handling your brother’s case. And there are still some attorneys out there who would approach a bicycle injury case that way. It’s incredible, really, and unfortunate. But it’s also one of the reasons we’ve seen the spread of quality bicycle advocacy, as exemplified by the Bike Law network, in cases ranging from small injuries to tragic outcomes.
Ann Groninger has written that these crashes that we deal with every day involve real people dealing with the real consequences of being injured through another person’s carelessness. Can you talk a bit about that from your own perspective?
Peter: My personal tragedy forced me to see the bicycling differently. It’s hard when something as beautiful and elegant as cycling is confronted with a nasty reality. And dealing with the hundreds of cases that I’ve handled, helping injured riders and their families through dark times, can be trying.
But when I get low, I ride!
Bob: I know what you mean. I think it has to do with being a cyclist representing cyclists. We can relate to our clients in more personal ways because of our personal experiences.
I know I began my own practice because I was a cyclist and I wanted to represent other cyclists. And you began Bike Law around the same time for similar reasons. So before this year, Bike Law was already well-established, but then you began a dramatic expansion. Can you tell me about that?
Peter: I realized that we had something great going on in South Carolina. I had a dream job, representing great folks and advocating a great cause. I knew if we could do it in South Carolina, we could do it anywhere.
Bob, you and I had spoken for years about combining forces. This year we decided to do that, and the energy and excitement around Bike Law is incredible.
Today, we are in 16 states, and more are on deck.
Bob: Yes, it was always great to be able to reach out across the continent to someone who was doing what I was doing, and I was amazed by the things you were able to do helping cyclists in the South-Atlantic states. It was a natural fit for us to combine forces into something larger.
Whenever the Bike Law network expands, we get a lot of interest from cyclists. There’s something about the combined strength of a network of bicycle accident attorneys and advocates that cyclists find very empowering. And one of the comments we always get is “I can’t wait until Bike Law is in my state!” Do you see Bike Law expanding into all 50 states? Can you talk about that, and why you think cyclists are responding so enthusiastically to the Bike Law network.
Peter: It means we are doing something right. It’s simple: I do what I love, representing clients and a cause I believe in. I think what sets us apart is that we advocate for our clients and our cause.
Bob: Absolutely! I’ve been an advocate for cyclists from the beginning, and you and Ann have established yourselves as passionate advocates for cyclists. How important is advocacy to the overall mission of the Bike Law network?
Peter: Essential. It’s rewarding to connect with and help individual clients, but social change is the ultimate goal.
Bob: I completely agree, which is why combining forces made so much sense. So what do you see as the factors making the Bike Law network unique? What is the network looking for when it expands into another state?
Peter: The Bike Law lawyers make me damn proud. I cannot imagine a better group. They get the mission, our community, and our movement. As we expand into other states, that’s what we are looking for.
Bob: Yes, the Bike Law team is an amazing and inspirational group of cyclist-lawyers. Do you have any cases you can talk about that exemplify the mission of the Bike Law network?
Peter: I have represented many families who have lost loved ones. Those cases are particularly poignant to me. They are never easy, but I cherish the experiences and the bonds I’ve formed. For example, I was honored to represent the family of Major Matthew Burke and to help ensure that the driver who killed him was charged with (and pled guilty to) felony homicide. In that case, the investigating officers initially deemed it an “accident.”
The cases that truly exemplify the mission are those in which the cyclist, after their case is over and their injuries heal, transforms into a cycling advocate and leader in their community. That is so cool, when a client becomes inspired by their experience to work for change.
Bob: I’ve had the same experiences with my clients. Over the years, I’ve made some good friends and we’ve stayed in contact.
In line with the Bike Law network’s mission, and its embrace of advocacy, there’s a “Bike Law Manifesto” that cyclists are encouraged to sign. What’s that about?
Peter: A few years ago, I was burned out by the hammer-fest mentality. Cycling can be hard, sure, but it’s elegant and gorgeous above all. I wrote an article called “The Lost Art of the Group Ride,” touched a nerve (it has been viewed almost 100,000 times), and realized that many others feel the same way.
I get some criticism that I harken back to a Golden Age that never was. Baloney. I believe in cycling culture, and I believe that its Golden Age is still to come. I reject the phony glorification of suffering.
The Bike Law Manifesto attempts to make a few simple points: everyone who rides is a cyclist; cycling is not suffering (the plague is); it takes practice and many miles to ride a bike well, and we should expand and support our ranks.
Bob: Yeah, your “Lost Art of the Group Ride” is a classic, and I would recommend it to everybody. Thanks for sharing Peter, it’s been an interesting conversation. Any last thoughts?
Peter: 2014 has been incredible for Bike Law and me personally. I can’t wait for 2015.
Bob Mionske is a former U.S. Olympic and pro cyclist, and a nationally-known bicycle accident lawyer based in Portland, Oregon, and affiliated with the Bike Law network. A prolific advocate for the rights of cyclists, Mionske authored Bicycling & the Law in 2007, and has continued his advocacy on behalf of the rights of cyclists with his Road Rights column inBicycling magazine.