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Tribune Blames the Victim of Bike Crash Caused by City’s Negligence

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The crash site, Damen and Wabansia. 

Yesterday, the Tribune ran a rather heartless piece about a young man who was severely injured after he rode his bicycle into a collapsed sewer grate, which the city had failed to properly barricade. Reporter John Byrne wrote:

Chicago taxpayers are likely on the hook to pay a $1.5 million settlement to a bicyclist who suffered brain damage and other injuries that left him with quadriplegia when he crashed into a barricade guarding a sunken catch basin in a late-night accident in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

Byrne’s article focuses on the cost of the settlement, and blames the victim. The reporter seems rather callous to the fact that Brian Baker, 23 at the time of the crash, was permanently disabled largely due to the city's negligence, and will only be receiving a portion of the compensation needed to cover his huge medical bills.

Baker, who had recently graduated from college with a degree in sports marketing, was cycling home on June 9, 2009, at 1:45 a.m. at Damen and Wabansia. He rode into a catch basin which had begun to collapse, leaving a crater in the roadway. The city’s Finance Committee voted Tuesday to approve the settlement, which was expected to pass at today’s City Council meeting.

The reporter made a point of noting that Baker “had been drinking and was not wearing a helmet,” suggesting that the victim was largely to blame for his own injuries. While bike helmet use is certainly a good idea in a city where dangerous driving is commonplace, it’s not mandatory. The city also has the responsibility to keep the roadways in reasonably safe condition for cycling, or at least provide fair warning of hazards.

“Had been drinking” implies that Baker was drunk. While it’s technically legal to ride a bike while intoxicated in Chicago, it’s certainly unsafe and irresponsible to do so. However, many people out on the town on any given night have had a drink or two, but are still capable of safely biking home. Baker’s blood alcohol content at the time of the crash has not been disclosed.

A more balanced article by the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman shows that Byrne left out some key information. Spielman noted that first Deputy Corporation Counsel Leslie Darling acknowledged that the city had failed to properly barricade the dangerous hole in the street.

“The barricade’s light was not functional,” Darling said. “The barricade was actually in the hole, instead of in front it [where] a bicyclist would be able to see and react to it… The city had two months notice of the condition and had scheduled repairs.” The city had allowed this dangerous situation to exist for an extended period on a popular bike route, so it’s no surprise that a tragedy like this occurred, and it’s only fair that the victim should be compensated.

Byrne also failed to mention that Baker had originally asked for $12 million, so the settlement is just a fraction of what he requested, and it’s probably not enough money to cover all of his long-term health care costs. Meanwhile, Darling acknowledged that the settlement is a bargain for the city. “Due to the catastrophic nature of his injuries, if a jury found in his favor, it’s likely he would be awarded a large damage amount,” she said.

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