Thursday, June 21, 2012

Strava: the Flint lawsuit

Recently, for Strava, the inevitable happened. It was announced they are being sued.

In this case Kim Flint, who was 41, rode his bike down treacherous South Park Road in the Berkeley Hills. That segment was later marked as "dangerous" by a user, but he still has the record descending nearby Centennial Drive. Kim obviously liked to put it on the edge downhill. There's risks with that, and in his case, he lost the bet.

The key issue here is what responsibility Strava has for Kim's risk-taking? If I promote a bike race on a course which is obviously dangerous, and people enter the race expecting some degree of safety, then if someone dies in the race I expect I'd be fairly exposed. But the historical standard for bike racing is at a relatively high level of risk. Anyone who's tried to stay with the lead group descending from Hamilton summit in the Mt Hamilton Road Race knows that.

But the question in this case is: is Strava acting as an event promoter in this case? Strava's position is likely that they are simply recording and quantifying data that is willingly provided, extracting times over user-defined segments. They use graphical medallions for riders who rank near the top for each segment, which suggests reward, but is it really a case of them encouraging riders to go fast? And if they are, is that a problem?

To answer this for myself (I'm not a lawyer so have to do the best I can) I refer to the California Vehicle Code. Strava has a multi-national customer base, but they're based in California, so this seems a reasonable choice.

Here's a link to section 23109 of that code. A key portion is as follows:

23109. (a) A person shall not engage in a motor vehicle speed contest on a highway. As used in this section, a motor vehicle speed contest includes a motor vehicle race against another vehicle, a clock, or other timing device. For purposes of this section, an event in which the time to cover a prescribed route of more than 20 miles is measured, but where the vehicle does not exceed the speed limits, is not a speed contest.

The key language here is "motor vehicle". When this term is used, it explicitly excludes human-powered transport. Bicycles are subject to "applicable" portions of the vehicle code (even though they're not defined as vehicles) but "motor vehicle" portions don't apply. Usually the code refers to "vehicles" without the motor part.

So what this says is under the law I can challenge my friends or whomever to an informal bike race whenever I want, as long as no other sections of the code are being violated. The code is full of provisions like "exercise due care" so reckless behavior is generally disallowed, but riding uphill is usually no problem, or on open flat roads.

So if I want to "challenge my friends" to a "contest of speed" on my bike, that's fine. It's not fine on motorcycles or cars. People have been comparing times on roads for the full history of the bicycle. People have been blasting down hills as long as I can recall. Strava hasn't changed the existence of informal competition; it's just facilitated it.

Strava does host competitions they initiate, however. These competitions are never for the fastest time descending dangerous roads. They're typically who can climb the most feet, or ride the most miles, or do a climb from a famous race the fastest. There was no such contest for South Park Drive, obviously. If Kim tried to go fast on South Park, it was by his own choice. The irony is if he were still alive I'm sure he'd be the first to deny Strava had any liability in his crash. The last thing he'd want is for the future of Strava, which he obviously loved, to be put into jeopardy by liability concerns. This is a nakedly cynical move by his family to exploit his tragic death, at the expense of an activity he obviously loved. People have been dying on bikes since 1842. They will continue to do so, whether or not they're subscribed to Strava. This is unfortunate, but it's a risk we willingly take every time we get on our bikes. On the other hand, Strava should think twice before opening a category for motorcycles... but they've known this all along.


bigmat78 said...

I've been thinking a bit about this news lately whilst on rides with friends. Firstly, I am not aware of all the legalities in CA, or the USA for that matter - I'm from Australia.

I'd be interested to know if the case has much to do with the feature that Strava introduced a couple of months ago. I started receiving emails in the following format:
: Hey mat,

You just lost your KOM on XXXX to XXXX by X seconds.

Better get out there and show them who’s boss!

-Your friends at Strava

I wonder if these emails in some way endorse, or incite riders to get out there and compete and what the legal ramifications are of this,


djconnel said...

Interesting point. Obviously Kim didn't receive such emails.

But perhaps it would be more responsible if emails instead said, "Riding in a safe, courteous predictable, and legal fashion, if conditions and present health allow, you might, at your own discretion, will, and initiative, assuming full responsibility for the result of your actions both to yourself or to others, show them who's boss!"

I wonder how universal the law is about "contests of speed". Is there anywhere where they are not illegal for motor vehicles, or where they are illegal for cyclists?

Robert said...

I'm not sure this is the right analysis. The lawsuit is a civil lawsuit, not a criminal case. In addition, even though bikes are not motor vehicles, they are supposed to follow other laws that apply to vehicles in general, and that would include speed limits. The speed limit on Centennial is 25 mph, and the mean value theorem says if you covered the distance between the botanical garden and Fricke field in 1:00, that's proof you exceeded the speed limit.

djconnel said...

Robert: it doesn't surprise me you asserted the mean value theorem :). Anyway, I'm not a lawyer, so I can't comment on how the legal system works, but rather on what seems to have a rational basis, and civil suits it seems are based to a large degree on the law for guidance to what behavior is reasonable. Compared to the standard applied to most activities, driving a car at all would be considered reckless, for example, but because it's legally sanctioned and generally accepted as necessary a high tolerance is applied there.

The reason I use the "contests of speed" law here is this is a line which was clearly drawn in the vehicle code. An extra effort was made to draft the legislation so it excluded bicycles. There's nothing intrinsically reckless about racing bikes, so setting up a sight which allows people to asynchronously race their bikes against each other is not intrinsically reckless.

Free speech can be damaging. If I set up a sight where people can freely speak, there is a statistical certainty that this will be used for libel and slander. If I facilitate the dissemination of speech, it can clearly be argued that I am therefore promoting libel and slander. But newsgroups, forums, and social media thrive today despite this. Strava is no different: it facilitates a legal activity which can be abused. If someone publicly posts that my mother is a gerbil on Twitter, I don't sue Twitter.

I think a similar argument could apply here. This would be different if Strava had designed the route down South Park and had rewarded prizes for the fastest riders.

El Hombre said...

Nice, rational analysis (a breath of fresh air compared to the rambling on the forums about this topic).

With regards to the 'uh-oh' emails Strava sends out when someone steals your KOM: interestingly they recently changed it to something like:

"You just lost your KOM on XXXX to XXXX by X seconds.
Get out there, be safe and have fun!
-Your friends at Strava"