Can you spot “reasonably safe roads”?

Reasonably Safe Travels — Part 1

Did you know that our cities, towns, counties, and state owe all travelers reasonably safe roads? Why does this matter? It matters! Read on, if you want to learn this powerful rule that is intended to ensure safer roads in Washington State.

A scooter user in the Seattle University District on Roosevelt Way NE, using the protected bike lane.

When you are injured on the road in a solo crash — riding a bicycle, on a scooter, in a wheelchair, or on foot – what should you do? What are your rights?

Allison, an acquaintance who was new to the city, recently shared details about her horrific scooter crash. Allison was over a mile from her destination and thought she would try out one of a Lime scooter. A super cautious person, she rode the scooter in a protected bike lane. But her first scooter ride resulted in a solo crash where she landed in the hospital for over a week in the ICU. As she told me the story, just a month after her crash, she kept saying, “It’s all my fault.” I was stunned.

“Why do you keep blaming yourself,” I asked Allison, as she shook her head.

“I didn’t know how many bumps and cracks were in that bike lane. And the lane ended really abruptly. Cars to my left had a green arrow to turn right and they didn’t feel the need to look for a scooter rider.”

Based on the events she described, I seriously doubt that the crash was her fault at all.

Whose fault, then? That’s what this blog post is about.

Allison’s assumption about “fault” in a solo crash is a common one. Too often, people beat themselves up and blame themselves for their solo crashes. This is understandable because there’s not an obvious “at-fault party,“ as in the case of a car vs. bike crash or a bike vs. pedestrian crash.

“It’s my fault. I guess I messed up, but I’m not sure how.” I hear it from clients and prospective clients almost every day. That is, they blame themselves until I explain that municipalities in Washington State have a duty to plan, design, construct, and maintain reasonably safe roads.

One client, a seasoned cyclist and one tough cookie (she was formerly in the Air Force) who regularly rides in the STP (Seattle to Portland), was riding a well-known training route on the shoulder of a major road. If you’re familiar at all with the STP route, there are plenty of twists and turns. Well, she wiped out, suffering major and permanent injuries.

Guess what? She recounts the crash and shrugs her shoulder as she points to the scars on her face, “I should have known better.” AAARGH… NO! When she told me the details, I recognized the fact that she was not at fault one iota. When I explained how road design cases work, she had no idea that municipalities have a duty to design, maintain, and warn about the condition of their roads for reasonably safe travel.

It’s pretty clear from how often I have these conversations that this simple concept is not well understood. That is because you’re not going to find a PSA on these like you do about drunk driving or don’t text while you drive.

Never assume a solo crash is your fault. If there is one thing I want you to learn from this blog post, please remember that a flawed road design is not your fault. Why? Because in Washington, we have laws along as legal precedent that firmly establishes that governmental entities have the responsibility to ensure that roads and sidewalks offer people reasonably safe conditions to travel. Washington is one of few states where this is the case.

This brings up the concept of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is the idea that you can’t sue the king. Because we don’t have kings (not yet, at least) in our country, the notion that governs many issues is that you can’t sue the government. Generally, there are only a very few and specific conditions under which a person might have standing to sue the government. In recent decades in Washington through a series of cases, municipalities have very little protect from liability specifically regarding road design.

What constitutes reasonably safe travel has a fair amount of gray area. That’s why you should do two things if you are involved in a solo crash:

  1. Talk to an attorney about the facts of your crash.
  2. Report your crash to the city, county, or state responsible for maintaining the location of your crash.

Reporting is critical, and I’ll explain more about this in part 2 and in other future blog posts.

So, remember: don’t blame yourself if you’ve operated a scooter or bike in a lawful manner, but you get injured. Our cities, counties, and state bear the responsibility to provide all travelers with reasonably safe roads.