While overall individual and public benefits to cycling are considerable, the interaction between bicycle tires and street trolley/railway flange gaps are notoriously dangerous and sometimes deadly.
In 2018, the family of Desiree McCloud brought suit against the city of Seattle, claiming that street trolley lines were responsible for their daughter’s death when her front tire became lodged in the flange gap between the street trolley track and the road surface, directly causing her to crash. The family further claimed that the city had been aware of the existence and danger of these gaps but had failed to protect cyclists from them, despite knowledge of an easy fix using rubber flange inserts.
A Seattle Police Department report released at the time of Desiree’s 2016 fatal crash stated, “This incident, though obviously tragic, appears to be the sole result of some form of operator error on the part of McCloud.”
The family retained Seattle law firm of Campiche Arnold, who in turn solicited a report from Hayes+Associates (H+A), a Corvallis, OR consulting firm specializing in injury biomechanics. In the report, H+A Associate, Erik Power, P.E., evaluated the crash based on engineering, rider dynamics and injury biomechanics. Power, a fully-accredited traffic accident reconstructionist, and H+A CEO, Wilson C. “Toby” Hayes, Ph.D., reviewed police and medical records and surveillance video captured moments before the crash. Their conclusion: “The streetcar track grooves were the cause of her bicycle accident and ultimately fatal injuries.”
In a pre-settlement press release, Phillip Arnold described the streetcar tracks as a “lethal bicycle trap.” Armed with the H+A analysis of the crash, Jeffrey Campiche maintained, “the only thing that would turn the bike over like that is the tire in the slot.”
The issue involving bicyclists and street trolley track flange gaps is not a new one. A 2010 suit against the city of Seattle was brought by six cyclists who had experienced crashes on tracks. In that bench trial, the city was found not liable. A Portland, OR survey of 1,520 cyclists revealed that over 67% of riders had crashed as a result of riding over street car lines.
In the McCloud case, the H+A analysis was instrumental in rebutting the police assessment of the incident and helping the parties reach the $490,000 settlement.