Forget about poor driving, one of the biggest dangers to the average cyclist is the road surface itself. What happens if you're thrown from your bike by an errant pothole? Well, our resident legal eagle, Andrew Bird of Bicycle Legal has the practical answer.
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Potholes pose a hazard to all road users, from pedestrians to motorised vehicles. However, cyclists are perhaps the group most vulnerable to potholes, given that they typically travel faster than pedestrians but without the stability afforded by motorised vehicles if they hit a defect in the road.
In England, Scotland and Wales, the maintenance of the public highway is the responsibility of highway authorities. These are normally local councils. Their duties include ensuring that roads in their area are reasonably free from dangerous defects. They aim to fulfil these duties by repairing defects found during inspections or reported to them as soon as practicable. Normally, roads are graded according to traffic volume with heavily used arterial roads prioritised over quieter residential side streets.
There are no absolute rules about when a defect is considered dangerous or not and legally, a crash caused by a defect is evidence, but not conclusive proof, that it is dangerous. Factors such as the size of the pothole size, particularly depth and location are taken into account.
Should the council become aware of a defect, they will either arrange to fix it, perhaps through sub contractors. The council may not, however, have any mechanism for checking that the work has been completed properly beyond assuming that it has because an invoice for the work has been sent to them. In theory, if the work has not in fact been completed, then they should pick up on this when they next inspect the road but this relies on the defect being seen by the council’s inspector.
Inspections are usually undertaken in a car and, less frequently, on foot. While a driven inspection may be sufficient to spot larger defects which may be hazardous to a car, it may be harder to spot smaller defects particularly hazardous to cyclists, such as those to the side of the carriageway where cyclists often find themselves. An obvious solution would be to conduct more inspections on foot or use a bicycle. That method would perhaps give council inspectors a better appreciation of the hazards posed to cyclists by potholes.
Should a cyclist be injured or suffer damage to their bike caused by a pothole, they can claim compensation from the highway authority responsible, normally the council, for maintaining the road. There are two main defences to such claims. Firstly, that the defect was not dangerous at the time of the crash. Secondly, that the council had a reasonable system of inspection in place but was not aware of the pothole prior to the incident.