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State pays $8 million to biker paralyzed in Montlake Bridge wreck

Looking south accross the Montlake Bridge

The state has agreed to pay $8 million to Mickey Gendler, who was paralyzed from the neck down after his bicycle wheel got caught in a gap in the steel grate while crossing the Montlake Bridge three years ago. He was riding with a friend in the left lane headed south because they were going to turn left to go to the Arboretum. His wheel got caught and he flipped over the handlebars. The impact split his helmet and left him quadriplegic. From Seattle Weekly:

DOT risk management director John Milton confirms that an engineer and an inspector knew about the 1999 accident, but says they concluded that the gap was not a problem because most bicyclists would not be traveling across it. The gap lies in a left lane (headed south) of the metal grate that opens and closes to let boats pass underneath. The majority of cyclists ride on the elevated walkways that lie on either side of the bridge.

But Gendler said he didn’t like the walkways, which he found too narrow and obstructed by pillars. He preferred riding on the main road alongside the cars, and on this day, wanted to be in the left lane so that he could turn left immediately upon passing the bridge onto a street that leads to the Arboretum.

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The state filled the gap last year to prevent further wrecks.

The Montlake Bridge can be a scary place to ride, especially when wet. The sidewalks on either side of the bridge have metal supports in them, true, but I always suggest people ride there instead of on the metal grate. But there are few signs alerting bike riders to the danger of riding on the grates. It seems to take either a fall or a near-fall for cyclists to learn that avoiding as many grates as possible is the best plan for your safety. Unfortunately, those that fall do not always get away with simple bumps and bruises.

The state needs to take more drastic action to ensure that bikers crossing this bridge are safe. To this day, it is confusing for beginning riders who may be unfamiliar with the area.

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8 responses to “State pays $8 million to biker paralyzed in Montlake Bridge wreck”

  1. Cyclist Mike

    I feel bad for this guy -I really do. I can’t imagine anything worse than being paralyzed and you can no longer enjoy what you used to. Its a huge change in life style and I’m not even sure I could cope with it. He is a much stronger person than I would be.

    With that said, I fail to see how this is the city’s fault. Regardless if you’re familiar with the area or not, you’re riding your bike and you should see the hazards in front of you. If you choose to ride on the grates, you assume that risk. No one is forcing anyone to actually ride across the bridge. If you don’t feel comfortable, dismount and walk across. Yes, it’s slower, but that is a trade off.

    I know this comes across harsh, but it’s reality. We are now living in a time where people don’t accept responsibility for their own actions, but rather blame it on everyone else.

  2. Steve

    Cyclist Mike,

    First off it’s the state DOT that settled not the city. Second, there was a previous bike accident at the same spot, caused by the same gap. The state knew about it, and they chose not to fix it. Once the state failed to correct the defect, they became responsible.

  3. Andreas

    I really can’t imagine why this guy should have been on the grating, much less in the left lane, but that said, I do think SDOT & WSDOT can and should do more to keep cyclists off bridge grating. Hopefully this ridiculous settlement will prompt them to do so.

    The Ballard Bridge seems worse than Montlake. There’s a sign indicating that north-bound cyclists should use the sidewalk, but it’s very small and easily missed; there’s no such sign at all for south-bound cyclists. The sidewalks are very narrow (much narrower than Montlake), so some cyclists might opt for the road. But the few cyclists I’ve seen in the roadway on the Ballard Bridge didn’t seem like they were there by choice; they seemed confused or scared, like they would rather be on the sidewalk but missed the ramp and because of the high curb and railing, there was no easy way to get off the roadway once they were on it. Given that the bridge is a half-mile long and the lanes are narrow, this makes for a long and treacherous ride.

    Fremont and University both have cyclist facilities of a sort. Fremont has pretty well-designed roadway markings and curb cuts to show cyclists where to exit the roadway, but I frequently see cyclists opt for the roadway instead: generally spandex-clad road bikers who keep up pretty well with the speed of traffic; I suspect they opt to stay in the roadway so that they don’t have to merge back onto the road once they cross the deck. University has a bike lane that runs the length of the span, with the deck grating filled in with concrete so it doesn’t grab your tires. It’s the best bridge bike facility in town, but I can still imagine a lot of cyclists eschewing the bike lane for the grating so that they can more easily make left turns onto Fuhrman or even Harvard.

    Personally I think WSDOT & SDOT should ban cyclists from grated bridge roadways, and add large signs that say “Bicycles MUST Use Sidewalk [or Bike Lane]”. In cases like Montlake or University, where cyclists will frequently want to make left turns shortly after the span, these could be accompanied by signs telling cyclists to perform a Copenhagen two-step, rather than try to cut across two or three lanes of traffic to get to the left lane.

    I consider myself a vehicular cyclist, but even I think there are roadways or parts of roadways where cyclists simply have no reason to be. And if cyclists like Gendler are going to go there anyway and then sue when they get hurt, I think it makes sense for the city or state to make it illegal for us to ride there.

    1. Andreas

      Just to clarify: I think the amount in the lawsuit is ridiculous, but the fault finding per se is not. I don’t know if WSDOT should’ve known the gap was a problem from the get-go, but after the first accident, they knew it was and they took a calculated risk: the cyclist didn’t get hurt badly, and they figured the odds of another cyclist ever getting caught in the same gap was very small, so they reasoned it was fine to do nothing. Given that the solution was as cheap & easy as a filling the gap with epoxy, perhaps they should’ve figured that any risk, no matter how small, justified the expense. But SDOT & WSDOT can’t go around bike-proofing every inch of roadway, especially in cases where the fix isn’t as cheap or easy as epoxy. They have to take calculated risks sometimes. And as a cyclist, if I were in their shoes, I’m not sure I would have bothered with the fix after the first accident either.

  4. Andres Salomon

    @Cyclist Mike: the logic is based upon this – “Bicycles do share the same rights, duties, and responsibilities
    as do automobile drivers. Obey all traffic laws. Ride with the flow of traffic.”

    Given that that is the law, it’s a reasonable expectation to assume that one can ride safely while obeying traffic laws. There’s nothing that the city can do against transient safety issues (reckless/inattentive drivers, downed tree limbs, animals running across the road), but it *is* reasonable to assume that if the street itself is unsafe for cyclists and the city is aware of it, the city will take measures to make it safe. It sounds like the city knew that the gap was unsafe for cyclists, but did nothing to fix it until someone sued the city.

  5. Cyclist Mike

    @Steve – still doesn’t mean cyclists should not be aware of the hazards when riding.

    @Andres – I get it, fix potholes, broken manhole covers, make storm drains more safe. Here is a bridge in which there is already a safer option in existence. It is call a sidewalk and it exists on both sides of the bridge. The posted bike route uses the sidewalk. What more should the city do? If the city and state need to cater to everyone, costs will be prohibitive. The rider weighed the pros and cons of riding on the grate and took that risk. He put himself in that situation, not the city and neither the state.

    It’s like when you come to the trolley tracks. Don’t ride on the street that has the tracks on it if you don’t think you can maneuver around them safely. Even if you’re new to the area and had no idea the tracks were coming up, assuming the person has legal vision, he/she should recognize the hazard and figure out how to get around it. Whether that’s using the sidewalk (cyclists are legal on sidewalks), or taking a different route, that is up to the rider.

    We live in a city with a very diverse network of transportation methods and environments. When you get on your bike, in your car, or on your motorcycle, you immediately assume some risks.

  6. another Mike

    No doubt people do stupid things that result in them getting hurt and in stupid laws being created. The case of the drunken Floridian who failed to secure the quick release on his front wheel at night, crashed, sued, and won. The result was the law that all forks have to have the “lawyer lips” that turn quick releases into slow releases. Mickey’s case is not one of those. He was an avid, experienced, measured, and extremely capable rider. The state knew about the problem and didn’t fix it. Inattentive or uncaring pedestrians with their phones, friends, and pets crossing the bridge make crossing on the sidewalks as dangerous as crossing the bridge deck, given that it is not defective. Mickey, his family, and large extended family would trade that $8M (more like $4M after taxes that go back to the govt from what I understand) for a chance to play that scene over in a nanosecond. If we as a society allow our infrastructure to be neglected for its best possible use, human movement by human means that doesn’t contribute to water and air pollution, oil dependence, climate change, congestion, and the obesity epidemic, what does that say about us? The courts were right in sending a message to the DOT that we must maintain our infrastucture for the well-being of humans.

  7. I had a similar thing happen to me in Oakland, CA. I was riding my bicycle and went around a turn and my front tire fell right into a large gaping portion of a steel grate that was placed over a drainage hole. The steel grate wasn’t large enough for the hole, it was placed far to the right with the hole open on the left, nearer to the middle of the road.

    I submitted a request to have the city pay for the cost of a replacement bike rim that I had to order, but they ended up sending it to some company that represented the city and told me that they aren’t liable if the issue had not previously been reported (they did fix the hole after I reported the issue). Luckily I wasn’t hurt…just went over the handle bars and bumped my head on the ground, using my hands and arms to absorb the shock. I wasn’t going too fast.

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