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Friday, January 25, 2008

Liability shadow hangs over RAGBRAI

Most Iowa communities want to be a part of the Register Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa -- better known as RAGBRAI -- because the annual bicycle tour brings thousands of dollars to their communities.

The 38th edition of RAGBRAI starts July 20 in Missouri Valley with stops in Harlan, Jefferson, Ames, Tama-Toledo, North Liberty and Tipton before ending in Le Claire on July 26.

"We've seen towns that get 20,000 to 30,000 people," T.J. Juskiewicz, the ride's director told the Des Moines Register. "That's a lot of dollars. The economic impact, some towns have told us, is $2 million."

But not every local government is thrilled about the ride. This summer's ride doesn't pass through Crawford County, where the county's board of supervisors passed a resolution in October banning RAGBRAI or "any event of like kind and nature," the Register reported.

The supervisors approved the ban after it paid a $350,000 insurance settlement to the widow of a RAGBRAI rider who died in 2004. The rider was thrown from his bicycle after hitting a center-line crack on a Crawford County road.

The Register goes on to report that many county officials want the Iowa legislature to address the problem this year by providing an exemption for future court cases involving bicycles on county roads.

To me, it sounds a whole lot like the 1998 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that made bicyclists permitted, rather than intended, users of Illinois roads. The ruling held that local governments are liable for bicyclists' safety because of road condition only on streets marked or signed as a bike route.

I certainly understand the counties' desire to avoid liability, and I certainly understand that some road conditions that are unsafe for cyclists, including a crack in the middle of the pavement, aren't necessarily unsafe for drivers of cars, trucks and tractors. But my experience cycling on roads in North America tells me that the roads that are substandard for bicycles often are substandard for motorized vehicles as well.

A better solution would be one being offered by Iowa state Sen. Bill Dotzler. The Register reports Dotzler plans to introduce a bill in the Iowa legislature that would enable counties to get state grants to repair the roads.

Of course, that would involve spending money, but spending money to make roads safer for all users -- including cyclists -- seems like a wise use of taxpayers' money to me.

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