Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take The Bike Lane With You

This blog is not really in the business of promoting products, but sometimes something comes along which is just too cool to ignore. Bike specific lanes are great. They designate space specific to bicyclists and shout out to motor vehicles, "Stay Away!" There are more now in Chicago than there were a few years ago, but there are still too few. Now, a company has come up with a compact light that uses lasers to create a virtual bike lane around you at all times. I'm not sure when it will hit the market, but click here to read all about it.
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How To Protect Yourself After A Road Rage Incident

In Chicago bicyclists and motorists rarely use five fingers to waive at one another. The mutual animosity that exists between these two sets of travelers is strange really. After all, most of us are both motorists and bicyclists. Yet somehow we seem to forget our other selves while operating one mode of transportation or the other. I suppose it is because while traveling on Chicago's roads, whether on bike or in car, we are trying to get somewhere as quickly and easily as possible while sharing a limited resource, usable street space.

Road rage incidents have the potential to turn out much worse for the bicyclist than for the driver. The motorist is, of course, wrapped in a cocoon of metal while the cyclist isn't. Not long ago I represented a young bicyclist who was the victim of such an incident. He was riding his bike on the right side of the road within the city when a motorist aggressively cut in front of him, nearly causing a collision. The bicyclist, pissed, rode after the vehicle, a red BMW, which eventually encountered slow moving traffic. As he rode by the car, the bicyclist wrapped the driver's passenger window and waved hello with a single finger. That should have been it. However, the driver, now also pissed, sped forward at the bicycle and struck its back wheel causing the young man to fly forward, ass-over-teakettle. His injuries were not very severe, thanks to nothing but dumb luck. Later, he contacted me to represent him against the driver, which, of course, I did.

I had one big concern in that case. Of course, making a case against the driver was easy. He seemed to have intentionally struck my client. But that was the problem. I was afraid that the driver's auto insurance carrier would deny coverage because the incident seemed to have been an intentional act. Liability insurance, including auto liability insurance, covers the insured for his or her negligent conduct, not intentional conduct. I could sue the driver and force him to look to his personal assets to compensate my client, but I was not sure the guy had any money. Sure, he was driving a nice car, but it could have been leased; it could have belonged to his parents. As it turned out we resolved the case with the motorist's insurer paying most of the settlement and the driver kicking in some additional money from his own fairly modest assets. The point I wish to make however in recalling that case is that if you are involved in an incident with a motorist be very careful when describing the events to police, witnesses and insurance companies. Do not speculate that the driver acted with malicious intent. If you are badly hurt and decide to pursue a personal injury action against the motorist, having categorized the driver's conduct as intentional may mean that his or her insurer will not cover you for your injuries. If your injuries are bad, requiring a lot of medical care, there is a low probability that the responsible motorist will have enough money or other assets to compensate you fully. There is no need for you to offer commentary when reporting a road rage incident. As they say, just the facts. Vent to your friends or family later.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

How To Avoid Getting Doored

Few things scare urban bicyclists more than the threat of being doored. This term refers to what happens when a vehicle's door swings open into the path of a oncoming bike. Obviously, injury or death are often the end result of an unavoided dooring. The thing that makes this threat so frighting is the suddenness with which it usually occurs. Both Illinois and Chicago law speak to this threat: "No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so. . ." 625 ILCS 5/11-1407, 9-80-035. The City of Chicago even imposes a $150 fine for doing so. The penalty increases to $500 if a collision results. 9-4-025. Additionally, if a bicyclist is injured from a dooring incident a civil personal injury lawsuit may be filed against the wrongdoer.

But I would rather not have you as a client. There are things a cyclist can do to help avoid getting doored:

1. Don't ride too close to parked vehicles: This can be tricky. Your ability to ride outside of the "dooring zone" will depend upon the amount of space between parked vehicles and moving vehicles. That space will depend on factors such as whether the roadway contains a shoulder or bicycle designated lane. If conditions permit, you should ride at least three feet away from parked vehicles. Doing so will probably not take you out of the door zone (the average car door is nearly 5 feet wide), but it should help you swerve to avoid contact with a swung open door.

2. Give taxis a wide berth: When at all possible just stay the hell away from taxi cabs. Exiting passengers do not have mirrors with which to see an oncoming bicyclist, and few will crane their necks to look before opening the door. Any stopped taxi is a dooring incident waiting to happen. If at all possible swing way wide of them.

3. Look for signs: There are tell tale signs that a door may be about to open into your path. Look inside vehicle ahead of you. Look for figures moving inside that mean that the vehicle is occupied. Look in the side view mirror. You may be able to see the driver of the car, and whether he or she is looking at you.

4. Announce your presence: To help avoid a dooring at night you should ride with a blinking yellow or white light mounted on the front of your bicycle. A blinking light will help distinguish you from all of the other sources of illumination that exist in an urban setting. With a light, those drivers who do choose to look before opening their doors will have sufficient warning of your presence. Also, when riding day or night, if you see a door creeping open don't be shy about giving a loud holler to the doorer (doorist?). Do whatever you can to announce your presence.

5. Control your speed: Alter your speed based upon the risk posed from dooring. If you are riding through a tight spot with numerous parked cars to your right, slow down. Sometimes you just will not have the space to swerve away from an opening door and you will need to stop to avoid a collision. Be aware of the potential for danger and act accordingly.

Dooring usually ends badly. That obvious fact noted, always ride relaxed. Riding in constant fear of what could or may happen to you is no fun and will probably increase your chances of getting into some sort of accident. Excessive fear tends to lead to bad decision making on the road (and, if I may, in life in general). However, you should ride aware of the dangers that exist. By doing so you will likely enjoy a lifetime of safe, fun urban cycling.

Click here to watch a dooring video made in Chicago.


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Monday, July 20, 2009

Recall of Bicycles Sold By REI

Last month, outdoor equipment seller REI announced a voluntary recall of a bicycle it sold. The bike was the 2005 Novara Trionfo Bicycle which came with a carbon fiber fork that could separate from the steerer tube. To read the recall news release from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission click here.
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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Five Things You Should Never Do On A Bicycle

I am holding myself out as an expert in what not to do while bicycling in the city. I declare myself such not because I consider myself an exceptionally skilled urban cyclist; nor do I do so because am I a boyscout when it comes to following the rules. It's just that I have violated most of what a good urban biker should do and have paid a price for having done so. Thanks, therefore, to my foolishly acquired knowledge of bad biking, and my legitimately acquired knowledge of the law, I share with you in no particular order 5 things you should never, ever do while riding a bike in the city:

1. Don't salmon: I have borrowed this term from blogger Bike Snob NYC who is known for deriding this practice. Salmon, of course, are hardwired to swim against river currents. Similarly, some bicyclists are inclined to ride the wrong way on one way streets. Not only does this practice violate Chicago Municipal Code, it is truly one of the more dangerous things you can do on a bike. Motor vehicles tend not to notice cyclists on city streets when they ride with traffic. If you are doing something wholly unexpected like riding in the wrong direction you are really asking to get hit. Furthermore, if you are in an accident with a vehicle while salmoning and you are seriously injured your chances of recovering from the driver in a lawsuit are slim to none. A jury will likely see your injuries as being the result of your own negligent conduct.

2. Don't ride on the sidewalk: In Chicago "no person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district." A business district is an area of the city zoned for retail shops, service and commercial use. Outside such districts you must be younger than 12 years old to legally ride on a sidewalk. Frankly, unless you are a small child, riding on the sidewalk is dangerous and plain annoying to other walkway users. Bicycles are to be ridden in the street, period. If you do not feel comfortable riding in the roadway find a bicycle designated path on which to ride. Do not infringe upon pedestrians' use and enjoyment of city sidewalks.

3. Don't ride without lights at night: Several years ago I was hit head on by a motorist while salmoning at night without lights. I was not hurt but I did become a candidate for the dumbass biker of the year award. Even without doubling down on the danger by riding against traffic, riding without a light at night is dangerous. Of course, the city never really gets all that dark thanks to street lighting. But the city is full of distractions for all roadway users, so the purpose of riding with lights is to help motorists see you. The relevant Chicago ordinance states, "Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a head lamp which shall emit a white light visible from a minimum distance of 500 feet from the front and with a rear red reflector capable of reflecting the head lamp beams of an approaching motor vehicle back to the operator of such vehicle at distances up to 200 feet or a rear lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of at least 200 feet from the rear."

4. Don't skitch: Some of us may recognize this term from childhood. This practice can involve grabbing onto a car bumper on an icy road to go along for the ride. I've seen many bicyclists in the city grab onto taxis and other vehicles in order to get a free ride. To call this activity dangerous and stupid would be an understatement. Don't even think about it.

5. Don't carry an extra person: I often see adolescents carry a second bike rider on their handlebars. It always makes me cringe. The other day I even saw an adult carrying a very young child on his bicycle in this way. It is very dangerous and against the law. Unless you're riding a bicycle built for two (and please don't do that either. It just looks silly.) avoid this unsafe practice.

There are, of course, other common unsafe ways to ride a bicycle in the city. I wear a helmet while riding and I think others should too. I, and many others, tend to weave through stopped traffic, but those not used to doing so should avoid it. However, the practices I've noted above are in my opinion 5 things no one, regardless of their skill or comfort level, should attempt. Enjoy your bike in the city, but be safe and curtious and no one gets hurt.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Help Finalize Des Plaines Bicycle Network

The city of Des Plaines, Illinois is working to improve commuting via bicycle. On Wednesday, July 15th city officials will be meeting to finalize the routes of a proposed bicycle network. Des Plaines residents have been encourage to show up and offer their input. For time, location and other information click here.
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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kids and Bicycle Helmets

In the summer of 1985 I was riding my new Peugeot racing bike along a twisting, hilly road on my way home from my part time job when suddenly the lights went out. I woke up in a hospital with a severe concussion and not sure of who I was. My face was scratched, bloody and bruised. I was 16 at the time. I was very lucky. I had not worn a bicycle helmet.

Illinois law does not require children to where bicycle helmets. Many other states do. A new study, reported on in the New York Times, found that states like Illinois should require helmets. According to the study, "Children who live in states with laws requiring bicycle helmet use are much more likely to wear them than those who do not." When kids wear bike helmets the chance of injury is very significantly reduced. According to Children's Hospital of Illinois, "Wearing a proper fitting helmet can reduce the chances of serious head injuries by 85%." It's hard to argue with statistics like that.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Riding "Fixed" and the Law

Riding fixed gear bicycles has become increasingly popular over the last several years. Fixed gear bikes do not have freewheels so you cannot coast. Instead, the bike's rear cog is fixed to the rear wheel so that if the rear wheel is spinning so is the cog. When the bike is moving, either forwards or backwards, the chain is turning the pedals are spinning and the rider's legs are working. This bicycling phenomenon is very popular here in Chicago where a flat landscape and a large messenger community helped it catch fire. Often these bikes are ridden with a single mechanical front brake consisting of a lever mounted on the handlebars and a caliper attached to the frame which pinches the wheel to stop. There is no need for a rear brake as the back wheel can be slowed by the rider's legs. Perhaps just as often, however, (at least by my observation) fixed gear riders equip their bikes without a mechanical brake of any kind. Part of the point of riding one of these bikes is to enjoy the mechanical and aesthetic simplicity they offer. A brake lever, cable and caliper may be seen as unnecessary and disruptive to the bicycle's design.

The question is often asked, however, are brake less fixed gear bikes legal to ride on Chicago's streets? As posed, this question is not quite right. Bikes in Chicago, and in the whole of Illinois, must have a brake. The relevant Chicago ordinance states:

(b) Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake that will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement. 9-52-080.

The relevant Illinois statute states:

(c) Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which will adequately control movement of and stop and hold such bicycle. 625 ILCS 5/11-1507.

Neither law defines the term "brake". Neither states that the required brake must consist of a lever, cable and caliper. As fixed gear riders know, the bicycle's drive train consisting of the fixed rear cog, chain, cranks, pedals and the rider's legs act as a braking system, one that works better than the uninitiated may think. It is quite possible, and in fact common, to abruptly stop pedaling locking up the rear wheel causing the bike to skid to a complete stop. It has been argued that chains can break and legs can cramp. But any braking system can fail. As designed, the drive train of a fixed gear bike will "enable" a rider to bring the bike to a complete and controlled stop. In my opinion, fixed gear bikes without traditional, mechanical brakes comply with Illinois and Chicago law.

A warning:

There was an infamous case in Portland, Oregon in 2006 in which a bike messenger was ticketed for riding her "brake less" fixed gear bike. The matter went to trial and the judge was not persuaded that the bike's drive train complied with the meaning of the word "brake" as used in the relevant Oregon statute (which had exactly the same wording as Chicago's ordinance). I have never heard of a bicyclist receiving a ticket in Chicago for riding without a brake. That's not to say it has never happened. However, given the shear number of people I see daily riding without a brake, it does not seem that the Chicago Police Department is cracking down on such riders. Even in Portland things are not so cut and dry. In a case brought against a fixed gear rider subsequent to the one described above, the bicyclist prevailed. That case was heard by a different judge, one who was a cyclist himself, who was persuaded that the fixed gear drive train sufficiently complied with Oregon law requiring a brake.

Another important point: In a personal injury case wherein a bicyclist is injured while riding without a brake, whether doing so was legal or illegal will be beside the point. A jury listening to a case arising out of injuries suffered to a fixed gear rider who had no brake at the time of the accident may be unsympathetic to his or her case. The jury may feel that the bicyclist is substantially at fault for the injuries due to not riding with a traditional brake and will refuse to compensate him or her for injuries sustained. Frankly, in an urban setting it is a bit crazy not to affix a front brake. Riding without one requires looking and thinking way ahead, to anticipate the need to stop before it's required. With pedestrians and vehicles and little dogs ready to leap into the bicyclist's path along nearly every city block, it's virtually impossible to anticipate everything. It is smart to have a front brake in case of an emergency. Having it will also help allay any concerns a jury may have, should an accident occur, about whether the bicyclist is himself or herself at fault for causing the sustained injuries.





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