Bikes are particularly susceptible to accidents caused by road hazards. Because of their relative instability and thin tires, unexpected, abrupt changes in the road surface can be treacherous, causing even the most careful, experienced cyclist to fall or lose control and veer into the path of a car. Road hazards most likely to cause bike accidents include potholes, sewer grates, and railroad and trolley tracks.
When a bike accident is caused by a road hazard, the most likely responsible party is the state, county, city, or other public agency that maintains the roadway. Whether you can prove liability and get the government to pay up generally depends on the type of hazard and what the government could have done to prevent the problem. (For tips on what to do immediately after a bike crash, read Nolo's article Bike Accidents: What to Do After the Crash.)
Generally, potholes occur for one of two reasons:
If the pothole is the result of shoddy temporary repair work, whether the public entity performing the roadwork is responsible depends on whether it provided sufficient warning of the hazard. Sufficient warning might include blocking off the repaired area, or placing warning signs or cones around the area.
If the pothole is the result of long-term wear and tear, the key question as to whether the roadway agency was negligent (and therefore legally responsible) is how long the pothole has been present. If the surface break has been there for a few days, the public agency is usually not responsible for an accident caused by the pothole. However, if the public agency leaves the pothole there for weeks or months, it may be responsible for bike accidents caused by the hazard. This is particularly true if previous accidents have occurred there and the public agency is aware of them.
Sewer grates can present a serious danger to cyclists. If sewer grate bars go in the same direction as traffic, bike tires can easily become stuck between them. Due to many outspoken bike riders, most cities and counties have changed the shape or direction of sewer grates or partially covered them with crosshatch safety bars. But many dangerous sewer grates still remain on the roadways.
If a cyclist gets into an accident because of a sewer grate, the argument is this: Bikers have a right to ride on a safe road; 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 employed to eliminate the danger.
Little-used or abandoned rail tracks present hidden hazards to cyclists. They are dangerous when they run on the roadway in the direction of traffic, and even more so when they cross the road at a curve or angle. A bike wheel can easily get caught in the space between rail and road, causing the cyclist to crash or be thrown into a car.
The public entity's liability for a bike accident caused by rail tracks depends on a two-part inquiry:
First, what is the rail position? If the tracks run in the direction of traffic or cross on a curve or angle, they are dangerous to cyclists. Tracks that are perpendicular to the road are not particularly dangerous.
Second, what has the public entity done to reduce the hazard? If the rails are dangerous and no longer used, the public entity could have removed or covered them. If the rails are dangerous and still in use, the public entity must provide sufficient warning to cyclists, such as warning signs. And a public entity should never create a bike path, encouraging bikes to travel that way, if the path crosses dangerous tracks.
To learn more about proving fault when bike accidents are caused by road hazards, including how to request the appropriate information from public entities, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). This easy-to-use guide also covers other common bike accidents, as well as motorcycle, car, and other accidents.