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.)