Take a look at the photo, and any biker will instantly see that it’s a dangerous road surface. There’s a sunken trench right on the riding line. Chris Hall was riding his Aprilia Caponord along that road, the A5120 in Bedfordshire, in April 2014. Sure enough, the worst possible thing happened: Chris’s wheels went into the 50mm rut and he was thrown off his bike.
On a big adventure tourer like this, you might have thought the suspension would soak up bumps in the road, but where there is a long fault in the highway your suspension doesn’t help. The tyre slides down the hole and the part of the tyre that grips the road moves from where it should be to the shoulder of the tyre. When the tyre re-grips the bike is out of alignment, resulting a nasty shake at best. If you are unlucky the front wheel will tuck in, and you’ll have a low-side crash.
Chris walked away with just bumps and bruises but he does not want to lose his no-claims bonus for an accident he regards as being the fault of those who failed to maintain the road properly. Also, he wants the road repaired, because the next rider might not be so lucky. He doesn’t want to involve lawyers as he has no injury claim. Here’s what anyone in this situation needs to do.
1: Prove It’s dangerous
Chris has to show the road was dangerous. Not to another sympathetic biker but to a district judge whose knowledge of bike handling might not be expert. So refer to published works – Police Roadcraft has a few useful tips, as does the Institute of Highways Engineers’ Safer Motorcycling (Google it: para 6.3.8 is helpful) – so the judge gets that rutting is dangerous. In this instance, the rutting was of a depth that should have been repaired under the council’s own criteria.
2: Prove it caused the accident
Chris has to show the rutting caused him to fall off. The fact that he fell off does not prove the road was dangerous but a short history of your riding and a presumption of competence goes a long way
3: Prove it’s their fault
The next stage is the statutory defence, where the highway authority may well claim: “We inspected this road every six months and we found no defect.” This is where the evidence comes in that Chris dug up from Google Earth imagery from 2009, showing the carriageway was in much the same state then. If the council can show the road was inspected and no defect was present they will succeed.
But this is unlikely. In 20 years of motorcycle practice I have never come across a single council that views the subject of rutting as a danger to motorcyclists as something worth training inspectors about. So if the council cannot show that its inspectors are properly trained to observe and note a danger to a group of vulnerable road users (us) then this defence is a bit sticky.
The Safer Motorcycling document is supposed to inform a council’s thinking. But in my experience it never does. The council will argue that as there were no reported accidents from 2009 to 2014 the road is not dangerous.
But the important test is a factual one for the judge to decide. Statements from locals always help as to how long the road has been rough. Objectively, was this road dangerous for all reasonably likely road users, which certainly includes motorbikes? The judge has the photos, and the fact of Chris’s crash.
Also, he has not got an ambulance chaser off daytime TV in front of him but an honest citizen who feels strongly enough about this to take his case to small claims court. And the council, if they see you are serious, are quite likely to pay your reasonable claim. Avoid any temptation to exaggerate. And then be prepared to wait. If you find yourself spat off your bike due to a defective highway, download the letter of claim and a precedent for you to start court proceedings.
If you are injured you need a lawyer. If you only need a few paracetamol or a week or two taking it easy, then you’d be better off tackling this yourself.
RiDE Magazine August 2014