24 January 2018

Which Way Was He Supposed To Go?

Few things vex me more than a designated bike lane that's poorly designed, constructed or maintained--or that ends abruptly or simply doesn't go anywhere.

Such lanes are not merely annoying or inconvenient:  Riding them is, as often as not, more dangerous than sharing the roadway with motorized traffic.

That is especially true if the direction of the bike lane is not clearly indicated--or, as in one case in northern California, a new lane is under construction or has been constructed to replace an existing one, but there is no indication of which one the cyclist should use.

For Matthew James Newman, such confusion proved fatal.  According to his widow a lawyer representing the family, Newman was riding along Highway 29 when he came to a railroad crossing.  

The safest--really, the only safe-- way to cross railroad tracks is at a 90 degree angle. According to reports, there was no way to do that where Newman met his fate:  the road crossed at a "severe" angle.  When he approached, his wheel got caught in a flangeway and he was thrown off his bike, which injured his head.  He died the next day from his injuries.

Now, some might argue that he was at fault for not wearing a helmet. But the suit his family has filed alleges that Caltrans was at fault for not clearly marking the hazard. 

Actually, that intersection had been marked with a sign warning riders to get off their bikes and walk across.  At least it was until some time before Newman made his fateful crossing.  When that sign was taken down is not the main issue, however.  Rather, it is another sign that was or wasn't nearby:  one indicating whether a new route was open to cyclists.

According to the family's attorney, Bill Johnson of Bennett & Johnson LLP in Oakland, the new path still appeared to be under construction--at least to Newman. "It was ambiguous and confusing which route he was supposed to take," according to Johnson. "If you didn't make the right decision, you were in peril."

Had there been a clear indication that Newman should have taken the new path, he would have, according to his family and Johnson.  He had traveled the route he took once, years before, so he probably thought he was making the "safer" choice.  Apparently, though, during that time he'd forgotten about the way it crossed the tracks.  

In addition to Caltrans, the suit includes the Ghilotti Brothers Construction company of San Rafael.  Johnson believes they were doing work on the bike path at the time of the incident, and therefore shared the responsibility for warning of dangerous conditions.

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