Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Risk-Averse Society and Rider Responsibility

DISCLAIMER: This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I've seen things and watched people and heard statements that would make me walk away from mountain biking forever, given any lesser degree of love and passion for the sport. I've seen it from both sides: that of the injured party, that of the family of an injured party and that of the so-called 'negligent' party. It's a tough line to walk but it's an interesting topic that I figured we could all type in caps at each other over. In all seriousness, this is something I've debated writing about for a long time because I'm so close to the eye of the storm, but it cannot be ignored. These questions have to be asked. They're not simple questions, nor are they easily answered. 


Recently, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek rant about a gal who is suing Oregon race organizers after being injured during a pre-ride for a Super D race. While the details of that particular case have been much discussed and insults tossed back and forth, the basis of general concern still stands: what does and doesn't constitute rider responsibility?

While American ingenuity is well-noted and even famous, our litigious nature and unwillingness to accept responsibility is even more notorious. Millions of lawsuits are filed inside of the US for varying reasons every year; with those lawsuits comes a wide variety of blame: negligence, deceit, failure to act and many, many more. We not only avoid taking responsibility as much as we possibly can, but we're also pretty terrified of risk. After all, we buy products because they have a 'money back guarantee' or a 'lifetime warranty'. We build brick walls around entire communities to protect ourselves from the unknown that lurks beyond them. We stress and fret over the 'what ifs' of taking the 'wrong' career paths. We've banned sharp scissors, we allow strangers to view us in our underpants at the airport, and we consent to serious breaches of personal privacy, all in the name of 'safety'. We despise risk. We're crippled with fear. We abhor not being in control and the possible situations that exist outside of it. Even worse? When our fears manifest themselves (or if anything goes wrong), by damn, SOMEONE is going to pay and it certainly won't be us. We look for someone or something to blame, never willing to admit that sometimes, sh*t happens. Other times, sh*t happens because we're stupid. Because this is life. And in life, just as in bikes, anything and everything can change all at once. 

What faces mountain biking and grassroots racing now is no different than we face in every day life, and very little has changed for mountain biking in the last twenty years: the constant threat of someone getting injured during a race or event and deciding to sue hangs over us like a dark cloud. It plagues bike parks, companies, race organizers, and individual property owners like, well, the plague. From Snow Summit and other resorts closing their downhill trails to the heavy insurance policies that race organizers and riders have to carry, we all understand that those who host these events are all easy targets for people who cannot accept responsibility for themselves. But what happens when there IS gross negligence on the part of an organizer or mountain? Is a lawsuit the right answer? What happens when we put our trust in someone (or a bunch of someones), only to be let down or even permanently damaged because of plain ol' disregard? 

Just like skiing, mountain biking is dangerous. The very name itself implies danger: MOUNTAIN BIKING. You know, riding bicycles down and up a mountain. Yes, mountains. Those big scary rocky things that protrude from the surface of our planet. THOSE mountains. Mountains are dangerous. Bikes are dangerous. We accept that from the very moment we swing our legs over those wheel-mounted steeds. But how far does the 'inherent danger' label really go? Where is the line between accepting responsibility for our own actions and holding others responsible for theirs? 

Now, I'm a fan of bikes. I'm also a fan of survival of the fittest. At the very least, bikes require some sort of survival instinct, sort of like not falling into a manhole while wandering down the middle of the street. And playing bikes requires some sort of ability to map out choice versus consequence, a la "If I pedal as fast as I can into that tree, will I bounce" or some other version of cause and effect. Gravity, speed, velocity and height all have equal and opposing reactions. Just look on YouTube, Pinkbike, or Google search 'Mountain biking fails'. It can be scary. It can also be really, really funny (if you're the audience). But those of us who accept the risk and the unknown consequences of our future actions inside of the sport have a lot of fun. We have decided that the unknown consequences of our actions are far outweighed by the promise of fun, improvement and speed. That's what makes us mountain bikers. We know that we might live in a world where we vote for 'safety' and 'security' over privacy and personal freedom, but safety is an illusion. We know that risk is everywhere. We know that whether we're struck by lightning while walking the dog, hit by a milk truck crossing a street, or we trip over our own feet on the way down the stairs and break our neck, there is no such thing as a world without risk. It does not, quite simply, exist. Everything can kill you at some point or another and while fear is what keeps us 'safe', fear can also do us harm if we allow it to govern our actions to the point that it owns an entire society. So where's the line? 

How does a culture that eschews any sort of risk embrace mountain biking while its sub-culture quietly thrives beneath that safe, smooth surface? Well, it doesn't. Not really. Not without a promise that everything will be okay. We can't promise that you'll stay alive and we don't guarantee that you'll have fun or that you'll walk away feeling that your money was well spent. We can't promise that, not even with gravel pathways and machined trails. There aren't many people are okay with completely accepting the potential hazards that come with our sport, and that's alright: we have waivers. But when a judge declares a waiver inadmissible in court or unuseable in a defense argument because the plaintiff claims they were 'misled' by race organizers or resort staff about obstacles, features or unmarked hazards, we have almost no recourse as an industry. When a family sues STRAVA because their husband and son died seeking a KOM, how do we predict that? What do we do with increased demand for mellowed out trails, E bikes and the onslaught of joust-worthy, full suit body armour? How do we respond to the people who, regardless of the name of our sport, refuse to accept the fact that they are wholly and singly responsible for themselves and their own decisions, for good or bad?

Or do we?

Should mountain biking as a whole begin printing disclaimers on waivers, entry forms and lift tickets about the 'inherent risk' of mountain biking and the user's responsibility to avoid any and all hazards and that the trail may change at any time without prior notice? Do we follow the ski industry and inform participants that if they don't like a trail, they should walk it? Can we accept that, as a rapidly-growing industry with many new or first-time participants? And who's responsibility should the information be? Who should bear the brunt of an entire society's pernicious fear of risk? Do we give resorts and race organizers carte blanche because hey! You're here and you're the moron fighting gravity to stay upright on a two-wheeled contraption? Do we look the other way and brand mountain biking the official home of 'Our Way or the Highway'? 

Who pays for the signage to be placed, the human hours spent on mitigating consequences, and the legal defenses of those still held responsible for the personal choices of the people they host? Who pays for the negligence of the careless or thoughtless?

Will we decided to refuse to be placed in a situation of blame and instead, require our fellow riders and racers to protect mountain biking and, quite simply, 'sack up' and take responsibility? Or will we allow our beloved sport to spoil over negligence claims and lawsuits as we fight for a stake in the run for main stream market share? We cannot have both.