Hazards, cycling and lawsuits

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Thursday, September 11, 2008
By Yokota Fritz

Santa Cruz railroad trestle bridge


The railroad trestle bridge over the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz has a walkway along the bridge that was originally built for railroad worker access. Over time, this became a popular public access between the Boardwalk and East Cliff Drive. The city of Santa Cruz and Union Pacific Railroad now permit public access on this walkway.

In 2004, Eric Lindsay was a testing engineer for Santa Cruz Bicycles. He had drank a few beers when he and his girlfriend headed home from his work. While his girlfriend Victoria opted to take the walkway, Eric rode his bike in the middle of the night across the railroad trestle instead of the walkway. He lost control, fell 20 feet to the concrete pylons below, spent nine days in a coma and woke up as a paraplegic.

Lindsay filed suit a year later against the City of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Seaside Company (which owns property adjoining the bridge) and Union Pacific Railroad (which owns the bridge). The trial court granted the defendants summary judgement. Lindley appealed and lost again.

One of Lindsley's arguments was that because the railroad and the city didn't enforce railroad trespassing rules and because he and hundreds of other cyclists and pedestrians cross the trestle on a daily basis, the railroad tacitly approves that use of their bridge and implies that the bridge is safe for that type of use.

I'm glad the courts rejected that argument -- if the court ruled that railroads and other private property owners have a duty to keep their properties safe for trespassers, I foresee more trespassing prosecutions. In Santa Cruz County, the railroad rights of way are among the more popular cycling and walking paths. I use them myself on occasion. They're reasonably safe -- trains operate on a regular schedule, they go very slowly, and the engineers know to look out for people near the tracks -- but the rail line is not intended for bike use and there are some inherent dangers and you need to be aware.

In the case of the trestle bridge, the no trespassing signs are very obvious and a walkway is provided along the side of the bridge. If the court ruled that the railroad or the city are obligated to restrict access to the bridge, the only way that could be accomplished is by blocking off the walkway as well -- walkers and bikers must cross the tracks to get to the walkway.

Lindsley, incidentally, has moved on with his life -- he now designs and rides gravity powered quadracycles on Santa Cruz county trails.

Los Gatos parking and "shared space"

Blossom Hill Park paking lot
Blossom Hill Park in Los Gatos has a pull in parking area off of Blossom Hill Road. In the fall of 2007, Sara Cole was pulling a bicycle from the back of her SUV when Lucio Rodriguez drifted off of the road and struck Sara and her vehicle, nearly killing her.

Cole is going after the town of Los Gatos for damages. She and her lawyer allege the parking strip alongside a busy road is inherently dangerous. Cole's attorney Mike Kelly says "Look at the parking. The vehicles are almost in the flow of traffic. They should hand everyone an orange vest."

I'm a fan of Hans Monderman's Shared Space approach to traffic engineering. The idea is that "intrigue and uncertainty" are more effective than posted signs and regulations at slowing traffic and making conditions safer and smoother for all users of the roadway.

Making the road and parking lot safe enough for drunk drivers makes it, paradoxically, more dangerous overall. In my time serving on a city transportation advisory board, the biggest hurdle to implementing any kind of real change was fear of lawsuits just like Ms. Cole's. Everybody wants barricades to absolutely remove any chance of any encounter with wayward motorists, but the "safer" we make roads and vehicles, the more dangerous they become to the more vulnerable road users, cyclists and pedestrians in particular.

Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic goes into quite a bit of detail on "Shared Space" and other fascinating stuff about the psychology and sociology of traffic if you want to learn more.

What about true hazards?

I'm glad for the system we have where individuals and public entities are held responsible when there are real hazards. I think Iowa went overboard with the restrictions they placed on organized bike rides in the wake of Kirk Ullrich settlement. Bike riders are users of the road, and roads and other facilities intended for public use should be built and maintained to safely accommodate cyclists.

    IMPORTANT: Please post comments for this article at the new CYCLELICIOUS 2.0 version of this page.
...what an extreme shame for someone who sounds as vital as eric lindsay...w/ no denigration or negativity whatsoever towards the man, i'd say that incident unfortunately defines the term 'impaired judgement' as applied to alcohol use...

...been there, done that, as a young cyclist myself...& obviously lucked out on my part...
...i hope the best for that young man...

...& sara cole's incident was also a horrific shame, but we just can't legislate or barricade for every supposed inevitability...
...if you're in a quote, unquote potentially dangerous situation, it's incumbent upon you to recognize it & react accordingly...

...again, no fault towards sara whatsoever but sometimes it pays to be concerned w/ one's surroundings...i also hope the best for her...
I won't argue that Iowa didn't go overboard, but from a risk/cost management perspective it was the only way to ensure there wouldn't be suits of the sort you mention in your post. That's one of the unintended consequences of living in a litigation-happy society.

(CA, by the way, highest ratio of lawyers per capita in the US, which is highest in the world - or at least that was the case ~ 5 years ago)
the more barriers we have to danger, the less we think about it and the more we expect to be protected. Hopefully this is a pendulum we can swing back towards *responsibility.* Snork... do I sound like a republican yet?
I echo BGW's sentiments (and should have mentioned it in my post). Indeed what happened to Lindsley was one of those things. He had crossed that bridge many many times as do many others to this day, most of them safely. It's indeed a shame and a loss that he fell. It cost him nothing to pursue this case and it was probably the lawyer who convinced him to try it.

Sara Cole's case is a classic case of wrong place at the wrong time. She did absolutely nothing wrong and then in an instant everything changes because of the bad choices of another individual.
So is the guy's name Lindsay, Lindley, or Lindsley? You've spelled it all three ways.
Lindsley, which is a pain in the fingers to spell correctly.
The Rail Trail idea in Santa Cruz is unnecessary, immensely costly, inconvenient and useless.

We already have bike trails and bike paths that go everywhere one could conceivably want to go in Santa Cruz. The railroad right of way doesn't go anywhere you can't already ride to in complete comfort and safety.

What's the point?
that bridge in SC reminds me of the bridge scene
in 'stand by me'
I've heard this Santa Cruz trestle bridge is where the Lost Boys bridge scene was filmed.
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