Letter from the Editor

Thursday, December 20, 2007

RAGBRAI in an age of liability

Storm Lake was a host city for RAGBRAI in its inaugural year of 1973, and has been flooded with the enthusiastic bike riders four times in all (the city reluctantly declined a year ago because of the AWAYSIS construction). I've been here for a couple off those rides, and it has been a blast.

In February, for the first time, RAGBRAI leaders will have to map a route under the prospect of some counties not welcoming its riders, even with the lure of the perhaps $100 grand they drop into a community in one frantic day.

It's the talk of bikers everywhere. On opening day on '04, Kirk Ullrich, 49, caught a tire in a crack in the road in Crawford County, toppled from his bike, and died of his injuries. Official RAGBRAI riders do sign a waiver, saying they won't sue the Register or the towns if they hurt themselves. But it didn't say anything about counties. The rider's distraught wife sued the county, and the case was settled for $350,000. The waiver has since been adjusted to offer more protection against lawsuits.

Of course, thousands of unofficial riders sign no waivers, and they would not guard in the case of gross negligence anyway, so they are far from iron-clad. In a litigious society, people can and do sue over whatever they wish to.

Counties are shaking in their boots. Crawford County whipped off a resolution saying the bike ride, or anything of the like, will never be welcome in their domain again.

Really? Public roads, I think, belong to the public, not the members of a jumpy board of supervisors. Are they going to arrest bike riders who wander in?

A bunch of other counties, Buena Vista included, opted not to ban bike rides, but to pass a resolution pushing the legislature to pass a law in 2008 to protect counties from lawsuits from bikers who may use secondary roads.

Is Iowa over-reacting? According to the Register, well over a quarter of a million riders have taken part in RAGBRAI over more than 16,000 miles of Iowa roads spanning 34 years. There have been four road accident deaths, a very safe record, and one lawsuit of this kind - and that one not settled for any outrageous punative damages amount.

It is probably smart for BV County to join all the others who are looking to protect taxpayer's interests with the resolution that has been signed. But this can't and shouldn't prevent us also from doing better by bikers. Is the county road on the south side of Storm Lake safe for the numer of local bikers who choose to use it? (I've been one.) Tragically, we have learned that the answer is no. Bike trail proposals are seemingly on hold, though - isn't that a bigger liability risk than RAGBRAI one day in every 10 years?

To a certain extent, a county should be held liable for making safe decisions, in this case providing reasonably solid roads. And to a certain extend, a biker - or a skier, skater, runner, swimmer - has to accept their own responsibility for the risks inherent in the recreational sports they choose to take part in. Cracks - and lot of other stuff - happen. Carpe diem, nonetheless.

Most people who ride a lot or for long distances have taken spills and have the strawberries to show for it, not only in cracks, but on curbs, sewer grates, bad road shoulders, patches of gravel/sand, potholes, while trying to resolve a compression shorts wedgie or whatever. RAGBRAI has seen lots and lots of spills, a few heart attacks, etc.

I have to point out, I didn't see the condition of the Crawfors road personally in 2004, so I have no right to judge. One source I've seen indicates that the crack was in the center, between traffic lanes, where a bike or any other vehicle isn't normally supposed to be.

One of the riders from 2004 says that the area in question had a number of obvious cracks, up to several bike-tires wide and deep enough to easily trap a tire. In a pack of bikes as is almost unavaoidable with RAGBRAI's thousands of participants, a rider might have no way of seeing that type of hazard in time to avoid it. I'm told - again - can't verify first hand - that there was none of the orange hazard paint I have seen used elsewhere on the routes, or a safety officer on duty to point out the hazard.

If the road was really that dangerously damaged, and especially if RAGBRAI scouts had warned the county, negligence would be the right call, and the county never should have allowed that event to be routed on that road without making repairs or at least warnings of the hazard. Don't pass bans and blame RAGBRAI, fix the darn roads.

It's a sad situation when one of Iowa's most beloved events may be turned away from good communities like Denison because of some long-shot chance for potential litigation.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Mr. Ullrich certainly would not have wanted that - a situation where insurance companies may scare bicyclists off Iowa's roads and put an Iowa tradition into jeopardy.

Checking web sites for bike clubs and state biking promotion sites all over the country, they are all talking about how Iowa is "banning bikes." That isn't really accurate, but the situation sure isn't good for the state's image as a healthy place for recreation - or for the chances of RAGBRAI enduring for another 35 years.

All of us should be sad and mourn for the gentleman who passed away, and do anything we reasonably can to prevent such tragedy from being repeated. But he was one out of many, many thousands - keep it in perspective.

RAGRAI isn't a negative - it inspires towns to paint, clean, and achieve levels of promotion and welcoming they have never imagined before. Instead of banning the bikers, Iowa counties should be inspecting and planning to see what we can do to make roads more fit for both local and visiting recreation enthusiasts.

Somebody has to counter this timidity, and it might as well be Storm Lake. RAGBRAI, come on back. You should be welcomed here.