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Road Rights- Things That Go Bump

Road hazards that injure cyclists might just seem like part of the sport–but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about them

Collisions with motor vehicles account for three-quarters of all serious injuries in bicycle crashes, so it’s natural for us to equate bike crashes with car-on-bike encounters. But less than a third of all bike wrecks involve cars; in fact, most are solo mishaps. Often, pavement defects and other road-surface hazards are the culprits. For example, a pothole or crack that would not endanger a motorist could catch a cyclist’s tire. Expansion seams in the road present the same hazard; in 2004, a participant in Iowa’s RA GBRAI ride was killed when he crashed after his wheel snagged under that circumstance.

Slippery substances on the road surface are another problem. In Stage 2 of this year’s Tour de France, 60 riders went down after slidingacross oil on the road. Cyclists can also fall on gravel, leaves, ice, railroad tracks, wet road-marking paint and manhole covers. Stormsewer gratings with openings that run parallel to a cyclist’s path are so notorious for grabbing riders’ wheels that the Oregon legislature passed a law requiring that they be installed with openings perpendicular to cycling lanes.

When these types of solo crashes take place, it may appear to the average person that the crash was nobody’s fault or perhaps the cyclist’s, and so the injured rider might be blamed for poor skills and simply told to “suck it up.” But in some situations, it might not be the rider’s fault–and someone else may be held responsible.

The question becomes: Is a road hazard the result of negligence? Depending on the situation, the answer may be yes. If the government agency charged with maintaining a road neglects that responsibility and a crash results, the agency may be held liable for the cyclist’s injuries. Of course, as with any crash, negligence must be proved, and in a case involving a governmental entity, certain conditions must exist. One condition is that the agency must have had notice of a problem; if the accident involves a road-surface hazard, this means that someone had reported the defect to the agency. A second condition is that once the agencyhad notice, it must have had a reasonable period of time to respond. This also implies the agency is able to exercise some control over the roadway. For example, the agency can fill a pothole, but it can’t stop rain from falling on slick surfaces. Though this raises another question: What if the agency had a choice of a less slick surface to begin with, but chose the slicker one?

What about railroad tracks? Even if you assume they can’t be “repaired” (not necessarily a valid assumption), a government agency might not escape liability. In 2007, Seattle opened a new streetcar line; over the next two years, six cyclists crashed on the tracks and were injured. This year, the cyclists sued, alleging the city knew from engineering studies that the tracks would be hazardous to cyclists, and officials would have had to post warning signs and reroute cyclists to mitigate the danger. The suit alleges that S eattle knew of this danger, but did not post warning signs or reroute cyclists until after the streetcar line was opened and injured cyclists began filing claims.

These are only allegations; the cyclists must still prove the city was negligent. But the case serves as a heads-up to cities about the potential pitfalls of ignoring known hazards to cyclists.

(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)

Now read the fine print:
Bicycle and the Law, Bob MionskeBob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske's practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc).
Mionske is also the author of Bicycling and the Law, designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem.
 
If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to mionskelaw@hotmail.com Bob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions each week to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
Important notice:
The information provided in the "Road Rights" column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public web site is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this web site. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the web site without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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