Bikers and Potholes: Injuries and costly litigation

Posted by in potholes

Cyclists just want to ride, but they can’t if injured by broken pavement. Cities, states and railroad companies often pay out large settlements to victims.

As a veteran urban bicyclist, plying the streets of Chicago on two wheels in all kinds of weather since the early 1980s, I thought I was invincible. I’m as skilled at avoiding bad pavement as I am bad drivers. I know rough pavement generally occurs in low spots, where standing water seeps through cracks and eventually causes asphalt to break down because the sub-pavement is unstable.

But one night in November while biking on a quiet residential street I found myself suddenly thrown to the pavement. What happened? I hit a relatively small pothole that was invisible to me. It was filled with rainwater with maple leaves floating on the puddle surface – an optical illusion that made it indistinguishable from the solid, flat asphalt around it. The crevice was on a corner near a drainage grate, so this pothole likely formed because storm sewers often back up with heavy precipitation.

I was lucky. I wasn’t going very fast at that point, and even though my head hit the road I was wearing a helmet that absorbed the impact. I had a slightly swollen knee and sore wrist for about 24 hours, but the only lasting effect was a front-wheel alignment problem on the bike and a mark on the helmet. I wear the helmet 95% of the time – and will make that 100% from here on out.

Potholes are very real dangers to cyclists. According to data accumulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation), 43% of bikers who feel their personal safety is threatened while biking blame uneven surfaces for their fears. Little falls like mine may not register in the injury statistics, but experienced cyclists understand the physics and risks.

The other side of pavement potholes and injured bikers is the financial liability borne by public entities – cities, counties and states, plus private railroads – that are responsible for maintaining these roads. In general terms, if authorities fail to repair a road with known existing hazards they are responsible for the consequences. Recent court settlements in biker-pothole injuries or deaths include:

  • Oakland, California — $3.25 million was paid by the city to a cyclist in 2015 who suffered severe head and face injuries in a 2011 accident. A citizens group had written to the city’s public works agency about “serious cracks and patches” in the road where the accident occurred that caused cyclists to “swerve left and right within the lane to minimize risk, often in front of a fast moving vehicle.”
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico – The city settled for an undisclosed amount with a nurse who commuted by bicycle to her job at the University of New Mexico Hospital. In early 2011, she hit a pothole that caused her bike to veer left into the path of a car which led to life-threatening injuries, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
  • Chicago, Illinois – A bicyclist hit a pothole next to a rail track, causing her bike to lodge into the hole that threw her over her handlebars. Under Illinois law, as in many states, the railroad bore responsibility for the hazardous gap in pavement – an unfortunately common feature of at-grade railroad crossings – in part because a recent inspection failed to note the problem nor make for corrections. The judgment of $350,000 covered medical bills as well as compensation for scarring, pain and suffering.

For many law firms across the country, bike accident lawsuits are a substantial portion of their practice.

I am like most bicyclists in that I am not interested in lawsuits to compensate for injuries. We just want to engage in active transportation that gives us freedom from congested traffic and enables us to exercise as we travel, as well as the green benefits of human-powered movement. Most cities want to encourage cyclists and avoid six- and seven-figure payouts. I think we all agree smooth pavement, free of potholes, would prevent most of these accidents from happening in the first place.