Thursday, December 31, 2009

Liability and a duty of care for cyclists

An old reminder of how liability and municipal responsiblity works relative to various road users. Critics of a new bridge, for example, suggest that they can design bicycle facilities on the back of a napkin (at least that's the inference of their comments), throwing a couple of buckets of cement and a few cans of paint at the old bridge and then declaring it safe for cycling.

In 2004, the court in Ontario (yes of course that is in Canada), found that this strategy doesn't protect municipalities from a certain duty of care to all road users, to one level or another.

Here's the text of an article from the Globe and Mail reporting on a civil suit launched by a cyclist over the simple signing of a route that was otherwise unappealing, if not unsafe, for cyclists. Just in case you wanted to know.

A hazardous cycle
Globe & Mail editorial
Wednesday, July 7, 2004

It may have been small-claims court, but the claim being made on behalf of Toronto cyclists was large: that cities have an obligation to design roadways so that they are safe for bike riders. The case involved a cycling activistwho received a "door prize" on Queen Street West, a busy east-west artery inToronto's downtown core. A door prize is the sardonic name for a car door that opens in a cyclist's path. Hannah Evans suffered a mild concussion and bruises in the 2002 accident and sued the city for damages.

At its simplest, the case was about basic negligence. The city had once designated the street a bicycle route and put up signs inviting cyclists to use the street; but as safety standards for lane width evolved and it became clear that Queen Street West did not meet them, the city apparently removed the designation without remembering to remove the signs. To compound the problem, the downtown area's most popular designated bicycle lane, which follows Beverley and St. George Streets, leads to Queen Street West, where cyclists are in effect stranded.

But Ms. Evans made a broader claim. Citing common-law principles about the sharing of roadways, dating from the early 19th century when horses stood to win a door prize from careless drivers, she argued through her lawyers that cities have an obligation to adapt the roads to changing uses so that they are safe for all.

On Queen Street West, between 14 and 17 per cent of vehicles are bicycles, according to evidence presented in court. And the city has a stated policy of encouraging people to use bicycles instead of cars for work and school trips, of making all streets safe for cyclists and of expanding bike routes. Roughly 8 per cent of local residents ride bicycles to school or work.

This is a rather literal case of rights colliding. Cars and bicycles have a right to be on the road, but should the city be required, say, to remove Queen Street West's parking lane, as cyclists argue, to make the road safer for cyclists? That would be unfair to merchants.

In the end, Deputy Judge Morris Winer found that the city shouldered 25 per cent of the blame in this case; the car driver bore 50 per cent and Ms. Evans bore 25. (She was not wearing a helmet, which points to the lack of respect some cyclists have for the law.) He ordered the city to pay Ms. Evans $1,125 and a portion of her legal costs, and said the city should make changes to Queen Street West in keeping with the changing use of the street.

Wisely, he did not prescribe these changes, leaving it to the city to balance all the interests involved. Motorists defeated the horse long ago, but cyclists are notgoing to go away. They deserve respect.

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