Urban Velo

Cycling Legalese: Steel Road Plate Dangers

bkevinides Steel road plates are commonly used to cover trenches dug in a roadway for utility work, and are particularly dangerous to bicyclists. Most everyone has a story about them — a friend once fractured his eye socket due to a gap between plates. Everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides helps to fill us in on what some local ordinances require of steel plates and what can be done about them.

Q: There are steel plates all over the city where I ride. They are dangerous, especially when they are wet. Are there any rules protect bicyclists from the hazards they pose?

Steel road plates suck. Ask any urban bicyclist and they will tell you from experience about steel plates. They are often not installed flush with the pavement or at least with ramping around there edges. Many times they shift so that dangerous gaps exist between them and the street, or between two or more plates. Even when they are installed correctly they get very slippery when wet. But it does not have to be this way. In fact, it is not supposed to be that way at all. There are standards in place which prescribe the properties of steel road plates and how they are to be installed.

Steel plates are generally used to cover trenches dug in the roadway — often by utility companies — to allow traffic to use an area during off work hours while construction is ongoing. Steel is generally used because it is tough yet elastic. It can take the heavy loads from motor vehicle traffic without breaking. However, for bicycle traffic, not to mention pedestrian and motorcycle traffic, they pose hazards. In light of that some local departments of transportation have adopted guidelines and specifications regarding how they are to be used. For example, in Chicago companies utilizing steel plates to cover areas that have been excavated must use plates that are “safe for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles.” Plates must be installed so that gaps “between adjacent plates must be no greater than 1/2 inch.” When they are placed in a bicycle lane they “must be orientated perpendicular to the travel way, whenever possible.” They “must be firmly bedded and secured to the adjacent pavement to prevent rocking or movement.” Steel plates “in the path of bicycle traffic shall have ramps installed” or a plate locking system in place.

The Chicago Department of Transportation’s Rules and Regulations do not make specific reference to plates having anti-skid properties. However, the general requirement that “all plating… be safe for bicycles” arguably covers that issue. Gregory Pestine, a civil engineer with Robson Forensic based in Chicago has stated in his pamphlet, Steel Road Plates & Roadway Surfaces in Work Zones, that “plates should be coated with an anti-skid coating.” Notably, the New York City Department of Transportation requires just that. Its rules require that, “All plating and decking shall have a skid-resistant surface equal to or greater than the adjacent existing street or roadway surface.” According to Guidelines on Motorcycle and Bicycle Work Zone Safety, published by The Roadway Safety Consortium, “Covering steel plates with a material that increases friction helps motorcyclists and bicyclists retain control, especially in wet weather.”

A quick Google search reveals that steel road plates with anti-skid properties are common and easy to come by. But is it just me, or are they rarely seen in the wild? I having been riding in Chicago regularly for a long time and I cannot say I have ever seen a steel road plate that had slip resistant properties or coating. My experience here has been similar to what a group called Transportation Alternatives found in a 2004 study looking into the matter in NYC. It found that 66% of 1006 metal construction plates it looked at in Manhattan were not skid resistant. I am not aware of any similar such study pertaining to Chicago, but I would be surprised if we fared better.

If you see an unsafe plate you should call your city’s 311 service and report it. Very serious injuries can result from plates that are not compliant with safety guidelines. If you are injured due to a slippery or otherwise unsafe plate you may have a viable case against whomever installed it.

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Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
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Cycling Legalese: Is Riding Two Abreast Legal?

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

Riding with friends is great, until you get accosted for riding with friends. Just what is the legalese about riding next to one another on the roadway?

Q:I had an angry driver accost us on a casual ride about taking up the whole road. We were in the rightmost lane, riding more or less with traffic, and two abreast. What are the laws on riding two abreast?

The law as it regards riding single file versus two abreast, a.k.a., riding next to each other, tends to reflect the frustration and sometimes hostility between those who like to use their bikes for transportation and exercise and those who think bikes belong on sidewalks or on limited use paths. In many places in the United States riding two abreast is legal; except when it isn’t. In some places it is explicitly prohibited. Unfortunately, it is difficult to provide a bright line rule. Much will depend on the law of the state you are in, the local ordinance of the town you are riding through (which may differ from the state’s vehicle code), the width of the roadway and the judgment of a police officer.

I recognize that this is not a satisfactory answer, but hopefully an explanation will offer some guidance.

The law in New York is as good an example as any of the “it depends” rule. Section 1234(b) of the New York Vehicle Code says:

Persons riding bicycles… upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast. Simple, right? You can ride two abreast but not three or more.

But the section continues: Persons riding bicycles upon a shoulder, bicycle… lane, or bicycle… path, intended for the use of bicycles… may ride two or more abreast if sufficient space is available.

The section adds, however, that when passing another user of the bike path or lane, cyclists must do so while riding single file.

Okay, but wait: Persons riding bicycles… upon a roadway shall ride… single file when being overtaken by a vehicle.

So it appears that while street riding in New York, you may ride two abreast; that is until a driver feels that you are in the way and wants to pass. Then you must revert to single file. Got that?

Let’s take a look at Illinois.

As in New York, the Illinois legislature giveth, then it taketh away.

The relevant state statute says: Persons riding bicycles or motorized pedal cycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than 2 abreast, except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for their exclusive use.

That is the give. You can ride two abreast. Now for the take: Persons riding 2 abreast shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic and, on a laned roadway, shall ride within a single lane…

This does not seem quite as onerous as the New York law. Still, there is much left open to interpretation so as to erode the confidence of cyclists when riding two abreast. What exactly does it mean to “impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic?” What traffic? Motor vehicle traffic? Bicycle traffic? And who gets to decide? Generally it will be a police officer who makes the controlling judgment call. The officer will likely look to another section of the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code for guidance which states that a person on a bicycle riding: at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride as close as practicable and safe to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.

To the extent that the left most rider riding two abreast is not as close as practicable and safe to the right side of the road, he or she may be subject to a traffic citation.

But wait, it gets even trickier in the Land of Lincoln. Some towns/municipalities have taken it upon themselves to regulate this issue. This means that during a single ride the law may change as you pedal across town boundaries. For example, let’s say you would like to begin a group ride with your buddies in Chicago and head north into the suburbs, a very common practice for club riders here. At the beginning of the ride in the City you may ride two abreast, so long as you are not impeding traffic. However, as you reach the North Shore suburb of Winnetka you must “ride single-file, except on paths or parts of roads which are set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.” To the best of my knowledge, cyclists are not warned of a change in the law as they enter Winnetka. Perhaps a sign that says something like, “Welcome To Winnetka; Now Get In Single File” would alert cyclists to adjust their group riding formation accordingly. Absent that, it seems that before setting out with a buddy on a ride in Illinois, you must research the local ordinance of each town you plan to pass through. Because what’s more fun than preparing for a bike ride by doing a whole bunch of legal research?

California has taken an arguably novel approach to this issue. Its state code says this about two abreast vs. single file riding: Nothing. The California vehicle code does not address the matter at all. So that means you can ride two, three, four, five, etc. abreast in that state, right? Not so fast. As we saw in Illinois, some municipalities in California have taken it upon themselves to address the matter.

For example, a local ordinance in Torrance states: Persons operating bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two (2) abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.

In that city cyclists may ride two abreast at most. As for the rest of the state, the vehicle code’s silence on the issue does not necessarily equate to smooth traveling through the legal landscape. In 2010, The Press Democrat, a California newspaper, documented conflicts between bicyclists and drivers in Sonoma County. The paper asked a member of the California Highway Patrol to offer his take on drivers’ complaints of cyclists riding next to each other rather than single file. Somewhat predictably the patrolman noted that the state’s vehicle code (like that in every other state) requires cyclists to ride as close to the right edge of the road as practicable. However, he admitted that “Riders do not have to ride single file in CA.”

But… He interprets the law as requiring, “If traffic traveling in the same direction approaches them [the cyclists], then they must move as far to the right as practicable. So, even if it is only one car that comes up behind them, if there is a rider that is alongside another, and in the traffic lane, they must pull in behind or ahead of the rider. If they can safely ride abreast in a marked bike lane, they would not have to do this.” In short, cyclists not riding single file where a car wishes to pass are subject to citation.

So, what is the takeaway from this sampling of the law in three big states with major metropolitan areas? It is that unless riding two or more abreast is explicitly outlawed (I’m looking at you Winnetka, IL), you may do so without getting hassled by the police so long as there are no drivers who wish to pass. If a driver going in the same direction wishes to pass the best practice to avoid legal trouble is to revert to single file.

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Cycling Legalese: Does the Bike Lane Compel You?

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

Ever expanding bicycle infrastructure is awesome, hands down. But are you compelled to use a bike lane or separated path if it exists, even if it is in disrepair or otherwise not suitable? Read on.

Q:There are new bike lanes popping up all over. That’s cool, but do I have to ride in them?

Bike lanes are awesome, except when they’re not. As someone who has been riding in the big bad city for decades, I am thrilled at the proliferation of bike specific infrastructure in my town and others nationwide. Our cities are evolving. However, no big North American city can claim to be on par with bike meccas like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. In the evolutionary timeline we have crawled out of the primordial ooze, but we are still pretty wet behind the ears. Sometimes bike lanes, and other cycle specific infrastructure, suck. Thankfully, in most places bicyclists are not required to use bike lanes or separated paths.

There are several reasons why a cyclist might choose not to ride in a bike lane. It may be in disrepair, full of potholes, ruts or broken glass. Leaving the bike lane may be the safe thing to do. It is common in U.S. cities for the lanes to be occupied illegally by cars, delivery trucks or other vehicles. Here in Chicago, buses are permitted to share bicycle lanes with people on bikes. In the winter months, bike paths maybe rendered impassable due to the accumulation of snow and ice. There are even times when cycling on a path or in a bike lane clear of obstructions just does not make sense. For example, a roadie on a training ride may be advised to avoid a path crowded with cyclists traveling at a more leisurely pace.

There once was a time when the majority of U.S. states had what are commonly referred to as “mandatory use laws,” that is laws that require cyclists to use a bike specific path or other designated area located adjacent to a regular travel lane. These laws were more common at a time when there were actually fewer such paths in existence, and virtually no bike lanes in North American cities. According to the League of American Bicyclists, “In the 1970s, mandatory use laws of some sort existed in 38 states.” Now, however, there are far fewer such laws, many having been repealed. Illinois’ vehicle code has no mandatory use requirement. Until recently, the municipal code of Chicago had such a requirement which read, “Whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.” The ordinance did not define what a usable path was. Was it a bike lane with nothing more than a painted line separating cars and bikes? Or, was more substantial separation required, like a jersey barrier? This vagueness ultimately lead to repeal of the ordinance in June, 2013.

Cyclists throughout Illinois and in places like Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and many others cyclists may ignore bike lanes and paths for any reason. In other jurisdictions a cyclist’s right to do so is qualified. For example, in California a bicyclist must use a bicycle lane where one is provided, unless he or she is traveling at the same speed as traffic moving in the same direction. California bikers may also abandon the lane when overtaking another bicyclist or pedestrian, when preparing to turn left, to avoid debris or hazardous conditions or when approaching a place where a right turn is authorized. The law in New York seems to be the same. Where there are bike lanes, cyclists have to use them. It appears, however, that cyclists there may abandon them under the same circumstances set for the in California Code.

The state with perhaps the scariest mandatory use language is one generally considered the most bike friendly in North America, Oregon. Its vehicle code states that, “A person commits the offense of failure to use a bicycle lane or path if the person operates a bicycle on any portion of a roadway that is not a bicycle lane or bicycle path when a bicycle lane or bicycle path is adjacent to or near the roadway.”

An “offense.” Yikes. Still, even in Oregon a bike lane or path may be abandoned to pass other cyclists, to make a left turn, to avoid hazard and to execute a right turn. Also, Oregon provides that a person need not comply with the mandatory use law unless it has been determined after public hearing that the bike lane or path is “suitable for safe bicycle use at reasonable rates of speed.”

As is generally the case, knowing what the law requires depends on the particular circumstances and where you are. If you want to check the law on mandatory use in your state, The League of American Bicyclists has a very helpful chart online. Be advised, however, that laws can change at any time without notice.

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Cycling Legalese: Riding With Music

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

People love to listen to music and it comes as no surprise that some people like to do it while riding their bicycle. What is the legality of combining bikes and music? It all depends on how and where you’re listening.

Q:I like listening to tunes while I ride. Is that illegal?

Generally, listening to music while riding a bike is not illegal. However, to know for sure whether doing so is okay or not, two questions must be answered: 1) How are you listening to your music? 2) Where are you?

If you are listening to music via a set of speakers mounted on your bike, then you are okay everywhere. I am not aware of any jurisdiction that bans the use of speakers on bikes for the purpose of listening to music, or anything else for that matter. (Of course, if you’ve got the Justin Bieber cranked to ear splitting levels you may run afoul of local noise ordinances and good sense/taste.) When it comes to bikes and music, what some jurisdictions regulate is the delivery method; in other words, headphones.

A few places have outlawed the use of headphones while biking on public roadways; for example, Florida and Rhode Island. Others have said it is okay so long as you have a headphone inserted in one ear only. California law states, “A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs, in both ears.” New York also allows headphone use in one ear only. In many states, it is perfectly legal to wear headphones while biking, such as in Oregon and Washington D.C. In 2011, an Oregon legislator, Rep. Michael Schaufler (D-Happy Valley) proposed a bill that would have made it illegal throughout the state to operate a bicycle “while wearing a listening device that is capable of receiving telephonic communication, radio broadcasts or recorded sounds.” Doing so would have resulted in a $90 penalty. Apparently, he told BikePortland.Org that he got the idea for the bill when he “just saw some guy driving down the street on their bike with their headphones on and thought, ‘He could get run over.’” He explained that to him it was “a safety issue.” The bill went nowhere.

Interestingly, in some places the applicability of headphone prohibitions to cyclists is misunderstood. That is the case in my home state, Illinois. Some well intentioned folks claim that it is illegal to bike with headphones here. For example, the City of Chicago states on its website that cyclists should never use earphones because it “is not only dangerous, it’s illegal.” That’s wrong. Neither city ordinance nor state law ban the use of headphones while riding a bike. The only statute that references headphones (it actually uses the term “headset receivers”) states that, “No driver of a motor vehicle on the highways of this State shall wear headset receivers while driving.” The emphases are mine. Under Illinois law, a bicycle is not a motor vehicle. Therefore, the prohibition of headphone use does not apply to people on bikes.

Perhaps the more interesting question is not whether it is legal, but whether it is wise to bike on city streets while wearing headphones. There are some important reasons not to do so. There are so many things the urban bicyclist must be attuned to while riding in the city: Trucks, cars, buses, potholes, pedestrians, lights, signs, little dogs, the weather, etc. It may be unwise to diminish one of your senses while navigating a bicycle through this gauntlet of hazards and distractions. By plugging your ears and pouring music into your fully occupied brain while biking you might increase your chances of getting into an accident. In fairness, however, I am not aware of any studies that suggest this is true. Our firm has not seen many cases in which the bicyclist’s use of headphones caused or contributed to cause a crash. On the other hand, if you are involved in a crash, particularly with a motor vehicle, and were found wearing headphones you may harm you chances of successfully seeking compensation for any injuries you receive. Certainly, the driver and his/her attorney will try to suggest that your inability to hear contributed to cause the crash and that compensation should be denied or at least diminished. You and your attorney would be best off not having to deal with the headphone issue should it become necessary to bring a claim or lawsuit.

I am cynical about the motives of those who would make biking with headphones illegal, like Rep. Schaufler in Oregon. I tend to doubt that the safety of the cyclist is the motivating factor behind such proposals. I suspect that the real concern is preventing sound impervious cyclists from slowing motor vehicle traffic. In other words, when I honk, get out of my way. Biking through the city should be pleasant, and for many, listening to music is a great way to ride and feel relaxed. Still, the benefits of headphone use are probably outweighed by the risks.
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Cycling Legalese: No Ticket, No Compensation?

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

If you’re involved in an automobile/bicycle collision it is in your best interest to call the police and get a report, but how will it impact a potential claim for injury or damage compensation if the police officer doesn’t issue a ticket to the driver on the spot?

Q:After I was hit by a car, the police did not give the driver a ticket. How will that affect my ability to receive compensation from the driver for my injuries?

A traffic ticket issued to a driver for causing a crash may aid a bicyclist’s personal injury case. But, failure of the police to ticket a driver will generally have no impact at all on the cyclist’s case.

Most police officers try hard to do the right thing. But strip away the badge and the uniform and what you are left with is a fallible human being. After a crash, you may know with cosmic certainty that the driver that hit you was in the wrong. Police officers arriving after the fact will not have a clue about what happened. They may have a pissed-off, injured bicyclists telling them one thing, a frustrated, nervous driver telling them another, and a mess of backed-up city traffic. Figuring out what happened and who was at fault may not be knowable, and/or may be the least of their concerns. Sometimes the responding officer will take his or her best guess as to what happened and issue a ticket. Let the judge sort it out. Other times a cop will throw his or her hands up and keep the ticket book tucked away.

To be sure, I sometimes shake my head when the police fail to ticket a driver. It is astonishing when a driver is not ticketed, for example, after dooring a cyclist in broad daylight. Other times I suspect that a police officer holds an anti-bike prejudice. Just the other day, I was in court in a suburb of Chicago defending a bicyclist who was hit from behind by a vehicle whose driver crossed a double yellow line and hit him as the cyclist began a left turn. The officer ticketed the cyclist for failing to signal his intent to turn, even though the officer documented that witnesses reported that the cyclist had indeed signaled. The judge ultimately threw out the ticket, but, sheesh!

When a driver is ticketed after a crash, he or she will generally be given a date to appear in court and enter a plea, guilty/not guilty. It is very important that the bicyclist appear at that court date. The cyclist will be the complaining witness, without whom the prosecution will not be able to prove a traffic violation (assuming the issuing police officer did not actually witness the incident). The officer that wrote the ticket will generally not be permitted to testify as to what someone else said happened. Such testimony is considered hearsay and cannot serve as a basis for a conviction. It is a good idea to arrive at the hearing early so you or your lawyer can seek out the prosecutor and let them know that you are present and ready to testify against the driver. In city traffic court the prosecutor will have about a zillion cases he or she is dealing with at once and will likely appreciate the presence of a complaining witness willing to cooperate and explain what the case is about. Depending on what the presiding judge generally allows, the prosecutor may then seek out the driver in the courtroom and explain their options. Sometimes an agreement to plead guilty will result in a lesser punishment for the driver then a finding of guilt by the judge after a time consuming trial. In my experience, many drivers take that deal. This is important. A plea of guilty in the criminal/traffic case is admissible in evidence as an admission in the subsequent civil/personal injury case. The driver will have a very difficult time wiggling free from a claim of negligence after pleading guilty. However, a finding of guilt (or not) at trial is not admissible in the personal injury case. In most jurisdictions a jury considering the personal injury case would never learn of the earlier verdict arising from the traffic citation.
So, if the driver is ticketed after a crash, great. Go to the traffic citation hearing. If the driver does not get a ticket, do not sweat it.

—Disclaimer—
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
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Cycling Legalese: Reflectors, Lights and Liability

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

Reflector and light laws vary from district to district, but what are the legal ramifications of flaunting them and riding without the legally required lights or reflectors? Find out.

Q:It’s my understanding that reflectors on the wheels and pedals are mandated by law, yet many cyclists remove these items upon purchase or use equipment largely incompatible with reflectors, like clipless pedals. If the cyclist is struck by a motor vehicle, particularly at night, could the driver face less liability if the bicyclist did not have reflectors to the letter of the law?

The law regarding lights and reflectors varies significantly from state to state. Failure to have the necessary lights and reflectors on your bike during a crash may negatively impact a personal injury claim, but will not necessarily bar legal recourse.

To emphasize what I hope is plain good sense, put at least a light on the front of your bike and a red reflector on the rear. Turn the light on at night and in crappy weather. In Illinois, the law requires that bicycles ridden at night “be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet.” A red reflector that is visible from at least 100 feet is also required. A red light may be used in addition to, but not instead of, the rear reflector. Oregon has similar requirements but its vehicle code requires that lights and reflectors be used during all limited visibility conditions, not just at night. The California vehicle code requires more illumination. That state mandates that a bicycle have a white lamp that both illuminates the road to the front and is visible from at least 300 feet in front and from the sides of the bike. The California cyclist must also have a red rear reflector, a white and yellow reflector “on each pedal, shoe or ankle,” and side facing reflectors or tires with reflective properties.
The consequences for not having the required items at the time of a crash will depend on the specific circumstances. The key to determining whether your lack of a light and reflector will bar legal recourse is whether your absence of illumination was the cause of the crash. In many instances lack of lighting will indeed cause or at least contribute to cause a crash. For example, front lighting will undoubtedly reduce a bicyclist’s chances of getting doored while riding at night. A driver exiting her vehicle will be much better able to see a cyclist in her side view mirror if the bike is properly illuminated.

However, lack of bicycle illumination will not always bar an injured bicyclist from recovering against a negligent driver for their injuries. To recover compensation in a personal injury case the injured person, aka, “the plaintiff”, must prove that the defendant (1) owed them a duty of care, (2) breached that duty and as a result (2) caused (4) an injury. For example, all drivers owe a duty to all other roadway users to stop at stop signs. If a driver blows a stop sign and crashes into another driver causing injury then the offending motorist will be found guilty of negligence and ordered to compensate the other driver for their injuries. But, in most states, a jury asked to decide a personal injury case may consider the plaintiff’s conduct as well. Sure, the defendant may have been negligent but the plaintiff may have been as well. The world is messy and complex that way. It is not always the case that person A was wrong and person B was right. Person A and person B may have both been wrong but one was more wrong than the other. In considering a plaintiff’s “contributory negligence” a jury must, as with the defendant, determine whether he or she violated a duty imposed by law and whether that breach caused, or at least contributed to cause, his or her own injuries. In the simple hypothetical scenario presented above, the injured driver also had a duty to stop at all stop signs. If both drivers blew their respective signs the injured party may have his or her monetary compensation reduced or barred altogether if he or she contributed to cause the injury inducing crash. Jurors are generally the ones charged with determining percentages of fault.

Back to the issue of bicycle lighting. It is important to emphasize that a defendant, to establish the plaintiff bicyclist’s contributory negligence, must prove two things: First, that he or she violated a duty either imposed by statute, e.g. the stop sign law, or by the general requirement imposed by “common law” (judge made case law) that all people act as a reasonably prudent person would under similar circumstances. Secondly, that the failure to do so was approximate cause of his or her injuries. A bicyclist riding through the streets of Chicago without a white front headlight and red rear reflector has violated a duty imposed by state statute. However, whether that failure is a cause of a particular crash and resulting injuries will very much depend on the circumstances. I have faced this issue several times in my bicycle law practice. In my experience, whether the plaintiff bicyclist’s lack of illumination proximately caused a nighttime collision with a motor vehicle becomes controversial when the driver hits the cyclist from the side in a well lit area. I have successfully argued a number of times that in that circumstance the cyclist’s violation of the light/reflector law had nothing to do with the crash. If the bicyclist was hit from the side, then a front facing light and rear reflector would not have helped the driver see him or her from the side much better. Also, if the location of the crash was very well lit, then even lacking the required equipment the driver still should have seen the bicyclist. Lack of bikes lights did not cause the crash.

Riding a bike at night without lights is dumb 100% of the time. However, the legal effect of not doing so will very much depend.

—Disclaimer—
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
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Cycling Legalese: Alleycats

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

You hear a lot about alleycats here at Urban Velo and beyond… But what’s the legal side of street racing?

Q: I hear a lot about alleycat racing. But aren’t they illegal?

Traditionally, alleycat bicycle racing was meant to replicate what bike messengers do on a daily basis: Quickly and efficiently ride through crowded urban landscapes to deliver parcels. In its purest form, during an alleycat riders are informed of a number of checkpoints they must reach. At each, they receive instructions regarding what to do next, then it’s forward to the next stop. Knowledge of city streets and back alleys, as well as strength on a bike are key components for success. The first racer to travel to all checkpoints and cross the finish wins. The spoils are modest: a smallish amount of cash, a new bicycle or component. The real prize, however, comes from knowing (and letting it be known) that you are the best at what you do. Collecting wins is better than employee of the month plaques, yet not as obnoxiously self-aggrandizing as collecting yachts and sports cars.

Here’s the thing though: Alleycat races are dangerous and illegal. Bike races must be approved by state or local authorities before they may take place on public streets. Generally, approval will not be granted unless accommodations are made so that the event does not interfere with traffic. The point of alleycat racing is to test one’s ability to travel by bike in the city under the kinds of conditions faced daily by bike messengers, in traffic. Obviously, no governmental authority would sanction a race in moving traffic. One significant downside to these races operating outside the law is that they are uninsurable. If a racer is hurt due to a poorly designed or designated course, or some other negligent act or omission by the race organizer, he or she will likely be out of luck with regard to receiving compensation.

Bad things can and do sometimes happen in alleycat racing. In March, 2008 a racer was killed during what used to be the biggest and most important such race in Chicago, the Tour Da Chicago. During the race, several racers ahead of the main pack reportendly approached the six-way intersection of Lincoln-Damen-and Irving Park. As they did, the pace, which had been high, slowed because the light was red. However, one of the racers, Matt Lynch, apparently tried to take advantage of everyone else slowing and shot into the intersection. When he did he was struck and killed by an SUV traveling at full speed. Matt made a mistake and it cost him his life. When deciding whether to enter an alleycat race, the prospective participate should consider the stakes and carefully take stock of his or her ability and experience. Recently, there has been a trend of alleycat races being organized and participated in by bicyclists who are not messengers, riders who may not have the kind of ability and smarts that someone who rides for hours every day on crowded city streets does. A while ago I asked Ben Fietz of the Chicago Couriers Union to offer his insight about alleycat races. He graciously did so. Here is what he wrote to me:

Alleycat races are pretty much always illegal, and can be very dangerous. That said, they can also be a very important part of the messenger community and the biking community in general. It sounds crazy, but I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t participated in alleycat races. In their purest form, alleycat races are a way for messengers to compete against each other and find out who is actually the fastest and who knows the city the best. I have the top spot at one of the best messenger companies in Chicago, and the truth of it is that I got into the company that I work for by racing in alley cats and proving myself about six years ago.

That used to be the main purpose of alleycats. They were races put on by messengers for messengers. But a few years ago, alleycats started to get really popular with city cyclists, and they started entering alleycats, and eventually throwing their own. It got to the point in Chicago where there were more non-messenger thrown races than messenger ones. Of course companies with hip marketing departments became aware of this scene, and sponsorship for the races grew. The early alleycat races usually didn’t have any sponsors at all, they would just be a cash race, winner takes all. It has gotten to the point where people are having alleycat races in cities which don’t even have any messengers in them. I heard about a race in St. Augustine Florida, which seems kind of silly. A couple of years ago, Velocity wheels sponsored and threw an alleycat in the city in Michigan which their headquarters are located. Once again, there were no messengers in the city, but they had an alleycat with a huge prize list, and people came from all over to race.

There aren’t as many alleycat races in Chicago as there used to be. The Sadie Hawkins race in the fall is a yearly race, which has very little involvement by messengers, but it’s a fun race and usually has a huge turnout. A messenger has been throwing a race about once a month downtown. These races are short and fast, and are set up to favor messengers. There are usually a couple of stops in each race that are very hard to find unless you are a messenger. The biggest race used to be the Tour Da Chicago, until Matt’s death.

* * * * *

As far as the safety of alleycats, it is pretty much up to the individual racer to race within your limits. There isn’t really any way to make a completely safe alleycat race. The whole point is that you are racing on city streets with traffic. The difference between a good alleycat race and a bad one is the level of organization and how well the race flows. But how well the race is organized really doesn’t have any bearing on how safe that race will be to enter, just how much fun it will be.

Alleycat racing, if it is to be done at all, should be left to folks who know what they are doing. A group of riders racing through city streets pretending to be something they are not, professional bicycle couriers, is a recipe for disaster. Before deciding to participate in an alleycat understand what you are getting into.

—Disclaimer—
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
—Disclaimer—
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Cycling Legalese: Almost Doored

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

What if by virtue of luck and reflexes you narrowly avoid a parked car’s door swinging open only to be struck by a passing vehicle? Who is responsible?

Q:Recently, I was almost doored. Luckily, I was able to swerve out of the way and avoid injury. But I could have been nailed by another car when I swung left to miss the door. I was wondering, if I got hit could I have held the driver that opened the door responsible?

You were not almost doored. You were doored. It sounds like you avoided injury thanks to some good reflexes and a bit of luck. Had you crashed because of that carelessly flung open door, the driver that opened it likely would have been responsible for the harm. A driver does not get a free pass because a bicyclist evades their bad conduct.

A driver may be responsible for the harm caused by his or her negligent driving even if there is no actual contact. However, the lack of contact between car and bicycle can create evidence problems. When there is no contact it may be more challenging to prove that the driver’s conduct actually caused the bicyclist’s injury. Proving a casual connection between the driver’s bad action and the injury sustained by the cyclist is a vital part of every bicycle injury case. Inevitably the driver will assert that (1) he or she did nothing wrong, and (2) the bicyclist overreacted and crashed on their own. Furthermore, the burden of proving the casual connection between the driver’s conduct and the harm is a burden borne by the injury victim.

Recently our law firm resolved a case that highlights the challenges that may arise from a near miss situation. Our client and his friend were participating in an organized ride. The route took them through a downtown area in a central Illinois city. They were on a road with one lane of travel in each direction with no shoulder or parking on either side when our client heard his friend yell, “Truck!” He looked to see a semi tractor trailer bearing down on them. It did not look like it was going to stop so the two pushed as close to the curb as possible. The truck passed them at about 35 mph within 18 inches, in violation of Illinois’ three foot passing law. Somehow, while the two cyclists were attempting to get out of the way of the passing semi, they ran into one another, causing our client to fall and break his leg. There was no contact between the cyclists and the truck, which continued on without stopping. The driver was never identified, and the subject truck was never found. No witnesses were able to obtain a license plate or identifying number from the truck. All we had was the name of the trucking company which had been emblazoned on the side of the vehicle. That turned out to be enough to hold the company responsible. With the name of the corporation we filed a lawsuit seeking to hold it vicariously liable for its driver’s negligence. The case eventually settled for a substantial sum.

Incidents in which there is no actual contact between a motor vehicle and bicycle are undoubtedly more challenging. The cyclist’s credibility will be challenged by the defense. His or her version of events must be able to stand up to strong scrutiny. But where a driver causes serious injury by forcing the cyclist to take dangerous evasive action, he or she may be accountable for the harm.

—Disclaimer—
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
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Cycling Legalese: Should I Carry Insurance?

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

It comes up amongst serious commuters all the time, should cyclists carry insurace? Are you already covered by existing policies? In this column Brendan lends some insurance guidance on what to look for in a policy.

Q:My bike is my primary means of transportation, so I ride a lot. Should I have insurance just in case, and, if so, what kind?

Talking about bikes is awesome. Insurance, not so much. But if you ride a lot in the city it is time to eat your peas and contemplate it, if only briefly. If something bad happens you will wish you thought about it. Cars, trucks and buses tend to produce horrible results when they collide with people on bicycles. For that reason, motor vehicle owners are generally required by law to have insurance to compensate anyone they may injure. Nevertheless, nationally one in seven drivers, over 14%, fails to carry the necessary coverage, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. In big cities, based on my experience, the statistics are ever scarier. I would guess that in Chicago where I practice, one quarter to one-third of all drivers go without auto coverage. That means if you get hit by one of these scofflaws your chances of being compensated for your injuries and damage to your bike are nil. But you can protect yourself by purchasing insurance before a crash.

Here is a brief primer on the coverage you should have:

Health insurance: I know, it is expensive and these days fewer employers offer it to their employees. Those dreary facts noted, do whatever you can to get yourself covered. Get on a parent’s policy. Look for a job with great benefits, even if the salary is not the best. Companies like Whole Foods, REI and Starbucks are well known for providing employees good benefits packages. Even with a seemingly minor injury medical bills can mount up fast. An ambulance trip to the hospital alone can run you close to a thousand dollars. Add in some x-rays and an ER trauma protocol and your bills could be jaw-dropping. The bottom line is that if there is any way that you can swing getting health insurance, you should.

Auto insurance: A bicyclist should have car insurance. If you get hit and injured by a driver you may look to your own auto policy for protection. It matters not that you were on a bike instead of in your car at the time of the crash. If one of the conveyances involved was a motor vehicle, then your auto policy may provide you with coverage. Your auto policy will likely have two relevant provisions: “med pay” and un/underinsurance motorist coverage. The medical payments provision of your policy will pay your bills up to a set amount, usually between $5,000 and $10,000. Med pay can get eaten up fast by medical bills but it is better than nothing. Also, it will not be necessary to prove that the other driver was at fault to recover under the medical payments provision of your policy. If you are injured by a motorist that coverage is generally available. Uninsured and underinsured coverage generally provides more substantial coverage. However, you will be required to provide proof that the un/underinsured driver was at fault for causing your injuries. You may wish to have an attorney assist you in recovering un/underinsured motorist coverage from your insurer.

Non-owners auto insurance: No car? No problem getting car insurance. Consider non-owners auto insurance. These policies are offered by many insurance companies and tend to be more affordable than owner’s coverage, generally about half the premium of a traditional auto owner’s policy. They may provide medical payments coverage, just like traditional auto policies. Also, they may protect the non-car owning bicyclist who is injured by an uninsured or underinsured driver. The other nice thing about non-owners policies is that if you decide that the no car thing is not for you, you will have established an insurance history which may help you get a fair rate on car insurance.

Bicycle insurance: This is another option for the bicyclist who does not own a car. Also generally less expensive than traditional auto insurance, these policies provide coverage to pay your medical bills and to fix/replace your bike. They may also protect you should you injure another cyclist or pedestrian. There seem to be more and more companies sprouting up to offer bicycle insurance. One company that seems to be aggressively marketing its services is Markel American. Curious about what they had to offer, a few months ago I investigated. What I found was that for $310 a year, $25.83 a month, I could receive $25,000 in “bicycle liability” and “vehicle contact protection.” Markel defines bicycle liability coverage as “protection for bodily injury or property damage” for which the insured cyclist becomes liable to another person such as a pedestrian, another bicyclist, or motorist. Vehicle contact protection is coverage to benefit the bicyclist should he or she be injured by an uninsured or underinsured driver. That $310 price also includes $10,000 in medical payments coverage defined by Markel as coverage providing “protection for the reasonable charges for necessary medical, surgical, x-ray, dental, ambulance, hospital and professional nursing services and funeral service expenses incurred within one year form the date of an accident causing bodily injury to an insured while using an insured bicycle.” Generally, the insured may receive compensation under a medical payments provision of an insurance policy regardless of who was at fault for causing his or her injuries. The quote I received also provided some nice benefits should the insured bicycle become damaged in a crash.

Homeowners and renters insurance: If you own a home or rent an apartment it is a good idea to have this sort of coverage. These policies may compensate you if your bike is stolen, even if it is swiped far from home. They may also protect you with liability coverage if you injure someone else while riding your bike. However, they probably will not offer a source of compensation to you if injured while cycling.

Insurance companies market themselves as offering safety and security should your world turn upside down. Sometimes they do. However, whether a particular policy is really worth the premium depends upon how it works when it is really needed. Please do not accept anything I have written here as an endorsement of any particular company or any service or policy it provides. I strongly encourage readers to investigate for themselves when purchasing insurance. Of course, all insurance policies are different. Ask lots of questions when purchasing a policy. Assume nothing.

—Disclaimer—
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
—Disclaimer—

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Cycling Legalese: Naked Ride Trouble

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

Getting ready for the World Naked Bike Ride? We’ve got some tips to keep you legal and out of jail for the night.

Q:I am thinking about doing my first Naked Ride. I know a lot of people do it, but could I get in trouble?

The World Naked Bike Ride, taking place in cities around the world, is coming up. The reasons for doing it vary by individual, but generally the ride is meant as a celebration of cycling, a work of participatory performance art, and an act of political protest against big oil. It is also meant to draw attention to cyclists as roadway users. (Can you see me now, Mr./Ms. Motorist?)

I have participated in Chicago’s large edition of the event, helping the security detail and the police provide a safe atmosphere for riders. (I ride with the security detail fully clothed. No one wants to see their lawyer streak by in the buff.) From my experience in Chicago, and based on what I have read of the event in other cities, the event is generally peaceful and the police tend to be mostly tolerant. However, there are ways to get in trouble on the ride. Here is a basic guide on how to avoid getting busted:

Ride With The Pack: Staying with the mass of riders you are arguably a part of a well-established political and artistic act meaning that you are probably entitled to the protection of the First Amendment allowing for free speech. On the other hand, once you have separated from the group you are just a dude naked in the street and as such may have a harder time arguing that your conduct is protected under the First Amendment. You could be arrested for violating local indecent exposure laws. If you run into mechanical trouble (with your bike that is) or need to break from the group for any reason, put your clothes on to avoid a run in with the police.

Don’t Act A Fool: It may not be your nakedness that ends up getting you into trouble, but rather your conduct. It seems that some folks down a bit too much liquid courage in preparation for dropping their drawers in front of thousands of city dwellers. Doing so could lead to running afoul of local BUI laws, in places where they exist, or public drunkenness and disorderly conduct laws pretty much everywhere. Avoid alcohol for this event.

Don’t Be A Creep: Perhaps this should go without saying, but be aware that it may not take much to make people around you feel uncomfortable. Do not take anyone’s picture without asking them first. This is common courtesy. Also, be advised that while the World Naked Bike Ride is generally a friendly, welcoming event, unfortunately, it does attract some weirdos who come out just to shoot video and photos. The folks in the security detail will be on the look out for these people but be advised that the creeps do come out. Understand what you are getting into and, as they say, “bare as you dare.”

—Disclaimer—
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
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