• Fri October 12 2007
  • Posted Oct 12, 2007
Tom McMahon, Staff Writer 10/11/2007 Area county supervisors are taking a close look at Crawford County's decision to request that RAGBRAI no longer use its county roads for the annual bike ride across the state. Monona County Board Chairman Stanley Skow, whose county is just west of Crawford County, said he wouldn't be surprised if all of Iowa's other 98 counties passed similar measures. "We were watching closely to see what happened in this case," he said. Crawford County Supervisor Steve Ullmer said the supervisors passed a resolution Tuesday barring RAGBRAI and similar events from using its roads because of potential liability. The county recently paid a $350,000 out-of-court settlement to Betty Ullrich, whose husband, Kirk, died after being thrown from his bike on Crawford County Road E16 during the 2004 event. Ullrich alleged the county was negligent in not properly maintaining the road, which allegedly contained a crack where her husband's tire got stuck. The county did not admit liability, but Ullmer said the incident forced the board to look at the issue. "We are trying to limit our liability," he said. We want to minimize our exposure to future lawsuits. Liability claims affect our insurance rates, and we owe it to the taxpayers." The Crawford County resolution stated the county's roads are not maintained to meet any bicycle safety standards and that, while bike riders are permitted to use the roads, they are not the intended users. Skow said Monona County will probably look at the issue and expects there to be discussion at November's Iowa State Association of Counties meeting. "We are on the other end of E16," he said. "Our roads are getting older and costlier to repair. Our county roads weren't built to take the heat they are taking now," Skow said, noting the state's lifting of the weight limits allowed on roads during harvest season. Mills County Board Chairman Ron Kohn said its supervisors have discussed the issue but taken no formal action. "I think every county will be looking at it now," he said. "It's a challenge to keep our roads in shape for automobiles without having to worry about bikes. It's a challenge to make sure it's a safe environment for riders." Kohn said he had hoped the Crawford County case would settle the liability question. Without a court decision, the counties remain uncertain about potential liability, he said. "It's a great event and a great thing for the communities," Kohn said. He said the economic boost a RAGRAI stop brings a community does not outweigh potential accident liability. Glenwood has been a stop on the ride in past years. RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz said no study has been done on the ride's economic impact on communities, but he has heard estimates of up to $2 million for one day. He had not yet received Crawford County's resolution Wednesday and did not want to comment on specifics. "We will not go into communities that don't want us there," Juskiewicz said. Pottawattamie County Board Chairman Lynn Leaders said he did not anticipate the issue would be on the board's agenda anytime soon. "I am not sure about it," he said. "It isn't anything we have discussed, but we probably will talk about it among ourselves. It's not something we need to decide right away." Leaders said the issue might be a broader one. "Are we liable if an individual is riding a bike and hits a crack and falls? Our roads are maintained for vehicles, not bicycles." He said he would hate to see the annual bike ride fold. Monona County Supervisor Lester Nordacker said his board would probably look at the issue. But he said he wouldn't vote to keep the ride out. "Are we going to have a lawsuit every time someone falls down?" He said riders sign a waiver and should realize there are risks involved. RAGBRAI participants are required to sign a waiver prior to the ride, exempting the Des Moines Register, the event's sponsor, and other entities from liability. In 2006, the form was amended to specifically exempt "persons and entities that provide event recommendations, advice or services relating to matters such as route selection or maintenance, risk management, safety and first aid." David Vestal, general counsel for the Iowa State Association of Counties, said the waiver should protect counties from liability. "The problem is that not everyone who participates in RAGBRAI signs the waiver." Vestal said he's had discussions with county officials concerned about potential lawsuits and with Des Moines Register officials who want to work with the counties on coming up with a solution. He said the Legislature might be asked to enact legislation to clarify the issue and protect counties. And he's not sure legislation already in place wouldn't already protect them; but since the issue wasn't settled in court, the matter is still unclear. "I think something will be worked out," Vestal said. "I don't think anyone wants to see RAGBRAI go away. It's a part of Iowa's culture."

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