Cycling Legalese: Steel Road Plate Dangers
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.