Because of their relative instability and the size of their tires, two-wheel vehicles like motorcycles and bicycles are particularly susceptible to hazards and unexpected changes in the roadway surface. In general, the thinner the tire, the greater the risk.
The most common roadway hazards are potholes, sewer grates, railroad or trolley tracks, and temporary disruptions from street construction work (street level changes, metal and wood hole covers, tar, oil, or loose gravel). Any of these hazards can cause even a careful, experienced motorcyclist or bicyclist to go down, or to lose control and veer into the path of a car.
This article looks at common road surface hazards, and discusses who might be held responsible for motorcycle or bicycle accidents caused by these hazards.
One common reason for a pothole or similar surface break is shoddy temporary roadway repair. Very often when a street or something under it is being repaired, the construction work is done in stages. Before the work is completed, a construction crew may temporarily resurface the road with relatively weak material that will be replaced later. These temporary fixes often sink or crack almost as soon as they are done, or are done so sloppily that they leave broken or loose edges of road surface. Sometimes the repair work is merely covered over temporarily with heavy metal or wooden plates that present dangerous edges to a motorcyclist or bicyclist.
If temporary road work leaves any such hazard, whether the public entity responsible for the road is liable to an injured cyclist depends on whether there was sufficient warning of the hazard. Sufficient warning might include blocking off the repaired area of the street or placing warning signs and cones. But a warning must provide a cyclist with enough advance notice that it’s possible to avoid the hazard.
The other common reason for roadway surface breaks is long-term wear and tear. In these cases, the key to whether the roadway’s public agency was negligent -- and therefore legally responsible for the accident -- is the length of time the problem has been there. If the surface break has been there for only a few days, the public agency is generally not responsible for an accident caused by the agency failing to fix it. If the problem has been there for weeks or months, however, then the public agency’s failure to fix it may present an unreasonable danger to cyclists.
Showing that the problem has been there for a while is similar to proving that a property owner is liable in a trip or slip and fall accident. A witness may be able to tell you that the problem has existed -- and perhaps has been known by roadway authorities -- for some time. Or the condition of the road, as demonstrated by photos, may show that the break is not recent. But your ability to show that the problem has been around for some time may depend on the public agency’s own records of how often the street had been inspected or repaired, and whether it had any notice of the problem before your accident.
Sewer grates can present a serious danger to bicyclists in particular. If sewer grate bars go in the same direction as traffic, a bicycle tire may easily become stuck between the bars. Cyclists have complained long and loud about this problem, and most cities and counties have responded by either changing the shape or direction of grates or partially covering them with crosshatch safety bars. However, there are still many dangerous grates on America’s roadways.
If you have had such an accident, you may want to request information from the public agency about its efforts to identify and replace dangerous grates. But this is only a way to put some extra pressure on a city or county’s insurance adjuster. The basic argument that the public agency is responsible for your sewer grate accident is simple: You have a right to cycle on a safe roadway; a direction-of-travel sewer grate presents a serious, unexpected hazard; and there are simple, inexpensive remedies for the problem, none of which the city or county undertook in the case of this particular grate.
Trains, streetcars, and trolleys are disappearing from the American landscape. But many of their tracks remain behind. Little-used or abandoned rail tracks present hidden hazards to motorcyclists and bicyclists. They are dangerous when they run on the roadway in the direction of traffic, and even more so when they cross the roadway in a curve or at an angle. In these configurations, a cycle wheel can easily get caught in the space between rail and road, throwing the cyclist down or sideways into a motor vehicle.
Whether a public entity might be liable to a cyclist injured on a rail depends on several factors. First is the rail position. If tracks run in the direction of traffic, or cross on a curve or at an angle, they are dangerous to bicyclists. If tracks cross perpendicularly, however, they do not present a significant danger to a careful cyclist.
If the rails are dangerous, then the question shifts to what the public entity should have done about them. If the tracks are no longer in use, then the public entity could have removed or covered them. If the tracks are still in use, the public entity must at least provide sufficient warning to cyclists. Signs should warn of the tracks far enough in advance that a cyclist can safely stop or take another route. And a city, county, or state should never create a bike path or alternate route -- encouraging bicyclists to travel that way -- if it crosses dangerous tracks.
As discussed above, after a motorcycle or bicycle accident caused by road surface hazards, you may have a claim against the state, county, city, or other public agency that maintains the roadway. If you file a claim against a public entity, you must pay special attention to the filing requirements and time limits relating to claims against public entities. Check out the articles below for more information on filing an injury claim against the government (links go to our companion website, www.personalinjurylawyer.com):
For more tips on establishing liability after a bicycle vs. car accident -- and everything you need to know to handle your insurance claim or lawsuit -- get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).