This week, the Washington State Court of Appeals published a landmark decision in O'Neill v. City of Port Orchard that will protect Washington's cyclists from dangerous road conditions. The court held that because cycling is a mode of “ordinary travel”, cities must maintain their roads in a way that is safe for bicycle travel—not just vehicular travel.
Pamela O'Neill was severely injured when she was thrown from her bicycle “because her front tire suddenly changed directions due to the uneven surface of the roadway” upon which she was riding. “[P]hotographs of the roadway around the accident site show gaps between concrete slabs of up to four inches and height differentials of more than one inch.” Experienced cyclists know how dangerous such conditions can be for cyclists, but Ms. O'Neill called a cycling expert to testify to the court about the danger. The expert explained how dangerous conditions such as these are difficult for cyclists to see and avoid, and that “once the cyclist's wheel engaged the defect, it would be extremely difficult for even the most experienced of cyclists to [maintain] control [of] their bicycle.”
Though municipalities in Washington owe a duty to maintain its roadways in a condition that is “reasonably safe for ordinary travel”, the City of Port Orchard argued that “it does not owe a duty to keep roads safe for bicyclists.” The Court of Appeals disagreed and clarified the danger such reasoning creates and explained why it held the city accountable:
We hold that cycling is a mode of ‘ordinary travel,' and therefore, the City has a duty to maintain its roads for bicycle travel.
Bicycles are an integral part of Washington's ‘statewide multimodal transportation plan,' RCW 47.06.100. Further, bicycles are subject to the same traffic laws as motorists and other vehicles when travelling on the public roadways:
Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this chapter, except as to special regulations in RCW 46.61.750 through 46.61.780and except as to those provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application.
RCW 46.61.755(1). RCW 46.61.770 regulates where cyclists may travel in the ‘normal flow of traffic,' which direction they must travel, and how they must ride on roadways ‘except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.' RCW 46.61.770.
Our Supreme Court has also recognized that bicycles are a mode of transportation. See Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Constr. Co., 179 Wn.2d 684, 317 P.3d 987 (2014); see also Pudmaroff v. Allen, 138 Wn.2d 55, 63 n.3, 977 P.2d at 574 (1999). Thus, we hold that bicycles, as a part of our statewide transportation plan, are a mode of ‘ordinary travel,' and the City has a duty to maintain roadways that are safe for bicycle travel.
The Court refused to let the City escape liability because the cyclist did not have proof the City knew the roadway was dangerous—“A fact finder could infer that the City had constructive knowledge of defects on one of its major roads that obviously have existed for years or decades.” The Court further refused to accept the city's arguments that Ms. O'Neill was herself at fault because she accepted the risks of injury inherent in cycling:
The issue here is whether O'Neill assumed the risks of a defective roadway surface condition when she assumed the risks inherent in cycling to work. Falling is an inherent and necessary risk of the activity of cycling, and O'Neill assumed the general risk that she would fall off her bicycle and injure herself. She did not, however, assume the enhanced risks associated with the City's failure to repair an alleged defective roadway of which the City allegedly had constructive notice.
This decision, as a whole, will require municipalities to not only recognize dangerous roadways, but to repair them so as to not create unnecessary risks of injury to those persons who choose to bicycle as a mode of transportation or recreation.