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Cyclists suing city governments over unsafe roadways

by Rhys Southan & Michael Bluejay

Boca Raton, FL cycle group

As of this writing (March 2006) the Boca Raton cycling group is suing the Florida DoT for failing to put in a bike lane on a new roadway.


Hannah Evans (doored in Toronto, 2002)

Hannah Evans was riding on a marked bicycle route on Queen Street West in April 2002, when she was "doored" by a driver leaving his parked car. She sued the City, alleging that it had been negligent in failing to ensure that the roadway was safely designed for all users, including cyclists. Extensive evidence established that "dooring" accidents on Toronto's major east-west arteries, such as Queen and Dundas Streets, are the most common and serious hazard for Toronto cyclists. Nevertheless, the City denied that it should be required to do anything about it.

 A Toronto Small Claims Court judge disagreed. Deputy Judge Winer recognized that cycling has increased in popularity, and is promoted by the City, because of its health and environmental benefits. He also found that the design of the lanes on Queen Street West was unsafe for cyclists, that the City knew it was unsafe, and that "they should have done something" to make the street safe for all users, including cyclists. The judge adopted caselaw which requires municipalities to respond to changing uses of public roadways. He ruled that as traffic and road use changes, so should the road design and infrastructure.

 Evans won $4,500. 25% came from the city, and 50% came from the driver. She was assigned 25% of the blame for not wearing a helmet, but presumably she didn't have any trouble paying herself.

Norm Hoffman (Bakersfield, CA)

 The Hoffman Family filed a wrongful death claim against the city of Bakersfield, California in September 2001, after Norm Hoffman was killed by a motorist who hit a lowered shoulder and over-corrected, hitting and killing Hoffman. The claim was initially dismissed, but re-submitted, and eventually the city settled for $25,000 in February of 2005:

Bicycle Transportation Alliance VS. Portland (1993-95)

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance sued the City of Portland when Portland was building a new road around a stadium and wasn't planning to include bike lanes. The BTA won, the city installed bike lanes, and now and the city is much more bike friendly in general as a consequence:

Between 1993 and 1995, the advocacy group, the Oregon Bicycle Transportation Alliance, sued the city of Portland because the Department of Transportation (DoT) refused to include bike lanes in the construction of two major new roads. The victory was due in large part to a state law that requires that bicycle and pedestrian facilities "be provided wherever a highway, road, or street is being constructed, reconstructed, or relocated."

In 1993, a new stadium was proposed for downtown Portland. The arena was centrally located and accessible to existing public transit facilities. Unfortunately, two major roads involved in the project were going to be hazardous for bicyclists. Both roads included double-lane automobile right-turns that would cross bike-traffic space. The roadways also approached two of the four bike-accessible bridges in Portland, where bridge access is extremely important.

After exhausting all other options, the BTA decided to sue the city on the grounds that it had failed to uphold a provision of the the state law, which requires that bike/pedestrian facilities be provided when roads are constructed, reconstructed, or relocated. The law also requires all municipalities and counties to spend at least 1% of their state highway funds to provide such facilities.

The City of Portland argued that it had upheld its obligation to the law by spending the required 1% on bike/pedestrian transportation projects. The BTA argued that the law required such facilities be included on "all new or reconstructed roads." In December 1995, the Oregon Supreme court decided the case in the BTA's favor. The BTA then dropped the suit, feeling it had made its point.

Consequently, the bike lanes in question exist today, and Portland's overall compliance with the "Oregon Bicycle Bill" has greatly improved. Portland city staff now commonly use the precedent as a rationale to require that bike facilities be provided in new projects. According to the BTA, city staffers say things like, "We need to have bike lanes or we will be sued."


Jane Lister (Vancouver, B.C., 2004)

Jane Lister was cycling home along the busy cycle-pedestrian route on the Burrard Bridge at rush hour when she swerved to avoid a pedestrian, fell off the raised curb, and landed in the path of a mini-van. "I broke all the ribs on my left side, and had punctured and collapsed lungs... my head kind of got trapped between the car and the curb," she told the CBC last year, in a highly critical story on the safety of Vancouver's pedestrian-bike lanes and the Burrard Bridge crossing in particular. Lister sued the city for damages and settled for an undisclosed sum out of court.

The main issue was that the bike paths were too narrow and pedestrians and bicyclists got in each other's way:


72-year old California cyclists wins $1 million from city after hitting ridges in a bike lane from tree roots and falling

(Settled out of court.)

 "A 72 year old retired phone company sales manager suffered skull fracture, multiple brain contusions and fractures to his right shoulder and ribs in a solo bike crash during a group ride. Plaintiff was in a marked Class II bike lane when the front tire of his Bianchi road bike struck a series of "washboard" ridges in the pavement caused by gradual encroachment of roots from roadside trees. This caused his front wheel to deflect at a 90 degree angle to the left, causing him and the front of his bicycle to pitch forward and down in a somersault motion with his bike shoes still attached to the pedal clips. Despite wearing a safety inspected bicycle helmet, he suffered a skull fracture to the bones around his right eye socket and behind his right ear. He lost consciousness and had no memory of the crash or its circumstances. A fellow rider made a police report one week after the crash.

 "We established how the accident happened through expert inspection of the bicycle and the place of injury and by careful, detailed depositions of others present during the crash including fellow bike riders and the two truck drivers who happened to be passing by on the other side of the road when plaintiff crashed. Through review of the town's DPW records on road maintenance and depositions of its DPW employees, we established the town was negligent in failing to properly inspect, maintain and repair the bike lane pavement and negligent in failing to barricade or warn of the presence of the dangerous condition by means of rough road signs or high visibility marker paint. The town sought dismissal on the grounds of "recreational immunity," but its motion to dismiss was denied on the trial court and appellate level, because the Court found that paved bike lanes are part of the street and highway system used for transportation and not off road trails designed and used for purposes of recreation. Defendant also disputed liability on the grounds that plaintiff should have seen the dangerous condition and either rode around it or slowed and gone over the bumps slowly. Our expert used measurements and photos taken at the scene on multiple occasions to establish that on the date and time of the incident the early afternoon sun was low in the winter sky and as its severely slanted rays filtered through the leafless branches of the roadside trees, they created a heavily dappled shade that rendered the pavement rides invisible to the plaintiff even though he was wearing yellow tinted sunglasses.

 "Although the plaintiff was retired and had no wage loss, we established he was entitled to substantial damages on account of pain, suffering and lost quality of life. This included proof that he suffered total loss of smell and taste, partial loss of vision and hearing, imbalance, emotional lability with crying, difficulty with word finding and inability to process routine paperwork such as bills or taxes. We presented evidence that he had developed a passion for cycling after his wife died as a way of combating grief and depression; that cycling had become the foundation of his recreational, fitness and social activities; and that his doctors had urged him to stop cycling after his brain injury because of the risk he would become hurt again if he went road biking."


Colman McCarthy (Washington, D.C.)

Peace activist/Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy had a bike accident in a park in D.C. in the late 80s or early 90s. He was on a bike path, and hit a pothole or a crack, fell and hurt himself. He successfully sued D.C.


Donald Hallsten ($4.35 million from the City of Chicago)

In November of 2000, Donald Hallsten was awarded $4.35 million from the City of Chicago after getting hurt and paralyzed while biking across a bridge that was under construction in 1996. The city had allowed a construction firm to erect a canopy at the corner of Dearborn and Delaware, thereby creating a blind spot. Hallsten approached the corner while riding and was hit by a cab. The city had posted "bicycle route" signs along Dearborn, suggesting that bicyclists were intended users of the road.


Please do not ask for "more information" about any of these cases. As should be painfully obvious, we put this page together to share what we know. We're not intentionally withholding some of the information from you for some bizarre reason. When we could find links to related coverage we included them. This is all we have, there isn't any more. Thank you for understanding.

How to Not Get Hit by Cars

Read our guide about how to bicycle safely.


Fan Mail

Splendid! I have been commuting to work year round for several years, and have come to many of the same conclusions you have. You put things very clearly, and there are a few points I hadn't thought of--thank you! I'm going to pass this info around. --Ron Grosslein, Amherst, MA

I would like to say that your site is absolutely terrific. From the title to the last word, it is logical, sensible, and utterly devoted to what should be every cyclist's number-one priority: avoiding death and injury. Way to go! -- Phil Hickey, Boulder, CO

I'm saved! I have got to tell all my friends about this site! (Both biking and non-biking.) Seriously, great advice and great graphics. I am going to try to get our club webmaster to link to you. -- Gerry Maron Carolina Cyclers; Palmetto Cycling Coalition

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Safe Road Riding Game/Quiz

The Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation has an excellent Safe Road Riding Game/Quiz. Most bike safety stuff I see tells you little more than to wear your helmet and follow the law -- as though it were that easy to be safe. But PennDOT's quiz presents real-world scenarios: How do you avoid that car door opening in front of you? What do you do when you're approaching a sewer grate? Good stuff.


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Note to "Effective Cycling" fans

If you're about to send me an email telling me how stupid the advice on this site is, please save yourself the trouble. Trust me, I've heard all the arguments before (ad nauseum) and I simply disagree. I never write to EC websites to complain that I don't like their advice, so there's no need for you to complain about mine. (Here's more about the the difference of opinion for those wondering what the fuss is about.)


I have developed this site to provide what I believe is very good advice to help you avoid getting hit by cars. But of course, bicycling will never be 100% safe, and I can't guarantee you won't get hit by a car, even if you follow all the advice on this page. (Naturally, I believe if you follow this advice you will be much less likely to suffer a collision than if you ignore it.) Ultimately, you are responsible for your own safety.

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