You’ve probably seen a ghost bike. Maybe you’ve seen the skeletal white frame of a bicycle locked to a street sign on a busy corner. Or perhaps you’ve seen the makeshift memorial chained to a single lamppost on suburban street in a sleepy neighborhood. No matter the location, ghost bikes turn an otherwise indiscriminate patch of road into a solemn reminder: A cyclist was killed or severely injured here. For the members of a community where a ghost bike has been erected, the image is a hard one to forget.
For those who haven’t seen one, a ghost bike is a makeshift memorial for a bicyclist who was either killed or seriously injured while riding. Ghost bikes are usually junk bicycles painted white, sometimes with a sign attached, and locked onto a fixture at or near the site of an accident. No single entity or organization governs the installation of all ghost bikes. While some are erected and maintained by family members and friends of a stricken rider, they are most often erected by activists and proponents of bicycle riding as reminders to the larger community of the dangers to bicyclists when motorists fail to share the road.
The first documented ghost bike was erected in St. Louis around 2003. Since then, over 630 ghost bikes have appeared in over 210 locations throughout the world. Despite the popularity and momentum of the movement, ghost bikes memorials on public property are, for the most part, illegal under most city and county ordinances. In California, the only sanctioned roadside memorials are signs erected by CalTrans on state highways at the request of immediate family members of persons killed by intoxicated drivers.
Why should we care about these makeshift memorials? Because along with the increase of bicycle riding in California, and in Los Angeles in particular, there is a concomitant increase in the value of bicycle v. auto litigation.
In 2016 alone, the City of Los Angeles paid out a total of $15 million in settlements related to bike accidents on public streets. In September 2016, the Los Angeles City Council paid $6.5 million to bicyclist who said he suffered injuries in an accident allegedly caused by a substandard street. Lest than a month later, the same City Council approved a $7.5 million payout for a bicyclist who was left a quadriplegic following a crash blamed on road conditions.
This trend in multi-million-dollar verdicts and settlements is not subsiding. In December 2017, a $3 million confidential settlement was reached in a non-fatality accident involving a bicyclist travelling in the opposite direction of travel, who was struck by a motorist exiting a mall parking lot. And in January 2018, a Los Angeles jury awarded $5.2 million dollars in another non-fatality bicycle-related accident, despite finding the bicyclist 20% at-fault.
These verdicts and settlements come at a time when the California Highway Patrol reports statistics for 1,997 bicycle accidents which show that the bicyclist was placed at fault approximately 60% of the time where the rider was severely injured or sustained fatal injuries. Indeed, in California, bicycle plaintiffs lose two out of three cases that go to trial.
So why then are the verdicts and settlements so high? One possible explanation is growing sympathy for a particular class of victim. While the effect of ghost bike memorials on the psyche of the average juror in a given community has not been studied with any specificity, it is hard to deny that a ghost bike turns an otherwise fleeting and abstract event, such as an accident involving two “strangers,” which a person might never learn about, into an intimate memorial for a “neighbor” – someone’s son, daughter or spouse. That kind of pre-existing empathy by a juror for a bicycle plaintiff is priceless.