There are lots of reasons to ride a motorcycle and many types of motorcycles to enjoy. Some bikes get excellent gas mileage and make great commuters. Others are designed for cross-country rides, carrying your gear onboard, while providing all of the comforts. Still others allow you to challenge yourself off-road or cruise the boulevard. For many riders, however, going fast is a primary motivation for participating in the sport. There aren’t many opportunities or valid reasons to go really fast on the street. Even if speed limits weren’t an issue, there would still be the obvious safety concerns that come with going too fast around other people and their vehicles. The fact of the matter is that legal and practical considerations dictate that most motorcycles are rarely ridden to their full potential. Those riders who try to do so on the street risk their own lives and the lives of others.
One good way to see what you and your motorcycle can really do is to put your bike through its paces on a closed racetrack. While most riders aren’t qualified or licensed to compete in official races, there are a number of venues that open these same racetracks to the public for a fee. Known as track days, these events afford riders an alternative to risking their lives, wallets and freedom racing on public streets. Designed to provide a measure of safety through a controlled environment, track days allow you to go fast, really fast, without breaking the law or fighting mixed vehicle traffic along the way. Of course, there are other riders on the course with you, but just as in sanctioned races, everyone is going in the same direction and, generally, at similar speeds. Additionally, courses are designed with open curves, clean lines of sight, run out areas and no cross-traffic. You can see where you’re going, and even if you overshoot a corner, you won’t find yourself wrapped around a tree or impaled on the grille of a passing truck.
Not without risks
This, unfortunately, does not mean that track days come risk-free. That ideal remains elusive for now. Despite all their advantages, the high rates of speed and competitive emotions of a track day mean that accidents will happen. While it might hurt less to low-side into a bale of hay then it does to hit a parked car, high-siding in a corner at 100+ miles per hour, flipping and sliding while being chased by your own bike isn’t pretty no matter how you slice it. Worse are the accidents that involve a few other riders, or lots of them.
Whose fault is it anyway?
Determining fault for a track-day incident can be tricky; pinning down legal liability is even harder. Generally, under the law, a person is only responsible for those injuries that they intentionally or negligently cause. On a racetrack, there are any number of factors that might shift both the blame and the liability dramatically depending on the details.
Assumption of the risk
We’ve talked about assumption of the risk as a defense against liability in boating accidents. The same legal theory applies equally well to track day accidents. Riders knowingly participate in what is undeniably a dangerous sport and are deemed to assume the risks usually associated with the activity. For example, if you are injured because of your own lack of skill or the negligence of other riders, these are risks that you have assumed. However, the assumption of the risk doctrine will not provide a defense to a person or entity that intentionally causes injuries or engages in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside of the range of the ordinary activity of the sport.
Is it to be expected that a crash might be caused by debris on the track, or is that an ordinary risk of the sport? Was there sufficient supervision? Were the rules properly spelled out and enforced? Was the track improperly designed or maintained? The point is, of course, that just because you signed up for a day at the track, doesn’t necessarily mean that you signed up for any type of accident imaginable; some risks are inherent in the sport, others, less so.
Any track manager will almost certainly have in place an injury waiver that seeks to protect the owners and operators from legal liability for injuries resulting from track day activities. How much protection such waivers afford the venue depends on the circumstances as well as on how well the contract was drafted. Most releases limit liability for participation in the activity but not for defects in the premises. Also, gross negligence on the part of the venue may overcome the waiver. A party cannot contract away liability for his fraudulent or intentional acts or his negligent violations of statutory law. If you’re injured in a track day accident, getting a copy of any waiver you signed is going to become important.
Sometimes it isn’t the other riders or the venue that caused the crash. Sometimes it’s the equipment. Tires blow out, brakes fail, chains snap. Often these things are caused by improper use, poor maintenance, or other user-to-blame causes. But sometimes equipment failures are the result of faulty design, substandard manufacturing or improper installation. In these latter cases, the entity that designed, manufactured, supplied, or installed the parts in question might be legally responsible for the resulting injuries.
Many tracks won’t let you out on the course unless you have coverage of your own; proof of which is usually required. However, the existence of insurance doesn’t resolve the question of legal liability for a track day crash; though it may help you to get the treatment you need. Your motorcycle liability insurance may exclude coverage for racing or track days. Read your policy. On the flip side, insurance held by the proprietors or others may offer a potential source of recovery.
In the end, experience counts when it comes to handling track-day accident cases. There are a lot of things to take into consideration and finding an effective source of recovery often requires creative thinking. Don’t trust your case to anyone who isn’t familiar with motorcycling as a sport as well as the complex questions of legal liability.