Designing a Risk Management Program for Mountain Biking

Presented at the 2006 IMBA Summit/World Mountain Bike Conference

Speakers: Pete Webber, International Mountain Bicycling Association; Jeff Jackson, Algonquin College; Dave Diplock, North Shore Mountain Bike Events Society

This presentation is based on material found in IMBA’s forthcoming book, “Managing Mountain Biking: IMBA’s Guide to Recreation Strategies and Solutions.” Available early 2007.

The information contained in the conference workshop and this document is intended as a resource only and should not be interpreted as a standard. Deviation from the enclosed considerations may be dictated by the circumstances of each unique situation. The information is not intended to constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as a legal certainty. Any individual in need of legal advice on any of the matters discussed should consult with an attorney.

What is Risk Management?

Risk management is a systemized approach to incorporating safety into the trail riding experience. At the most basic level, there are two trail-related risk management goals:

  1. Manage the risks on your trails
  2. Minimize the losses from lawsuits

To accomplish these goals, you’ll need to tackle three things:

  1. Design and build trails appropriately
  2. Manage and maintain them consistently and responsibly
  3. Acquire the protection of a sound insurance policy or other risk transference strategies

Key Elements of a Risk Management Program

This step-by-step program is a blueprint for a proactive approach to risk management. By tackling the topic in a structured manner, you can tick off each task with confidence and demonstrate your organization’s professional commitment to safety. A program of this type is extremely valuable: It can serve as a deterrent to being sued and is evidence of your intent to manage your trail system responsibly if you are sued. Additionally, it will help you prioritize projects and make more efficient use of labor and funding. The good news is that you are probably already practicing many risk management techniques listed here. It’s just that sometimes you don’t think of it that way.

Here are some topics for your consideration:

1. Create Risk Management Team and Designate Leader
Recruit a team who will be responsible for making sure the risk management program is developed, implemented, and documented. Designate a team leader whose title will be Risk Management Coordinator.

2. Write Philosophy Statement
Demonstrate your organization’s commitment to risk management by writing an official statement that declares your position on safety and risk. This could be considered the ‘mission statement’ for your trail with regards to risk.

3. Establish Trail Design and Construction Policy
It is important that your organization develops or adopts guidelines or a policy on trail design and construction. Your team’s philosophy statement on risk will help select or modify guidelines to meet your group’s goals and needs.

4. Implement a Trail Difficulty Rating System
Post clear signs that indicate the relative technical difficulty of each trail. This will encourage visitors to use trails that match their skill level and can minimize injuries.

5. Develop an Effective Signage System
Signs play a vital role in managing risk. Consider using warning signs to mark unexpected hazards. But signs can also be used to indicate trail difficulty, remind visitors of trail rules, encourage responsible riding, and many other things.

6. Institute Visitor Rules and Regulations
Assemble all your trail-user regulations and review them. Add or modify safety regulations if needed.

7. Develop an Emergency Plan
An action plan for emergencies is an often-overlooked component of trail management. You don’t have to park an ambulance with the engine running at the trailhead, but you are responsible for a minimum level of care.

8. Eliminate Unreasonable Hazards, Focus on Man-made Structures
Although this step is really part of your routine trail maintenance duties, don’t postpone this vital task during the often-lengthy risk management planning process. Evaluate your trail system now and eliminate unreasonable hazards or post warning signs.

9. Establish Trail Inspection and Maintenance Policy 
Many negligence lawsuits are related to faulty trail maintenance rather than improper trail design or construction. Therefore, adherence to a written inspection and maintenance plan is vital.

10. Maintain Trail System Consistent with Policy
Once you’ve established trail policies, you’ll need to ensure your trails meet the policy. For some trails, modifications may not be needed. For others, it could be a gargantuan task. It isn’t necessary to correct all issues immediately, but you should develop a long-term plan for the work.

11. Create Record Keeping System
Documenting your handiwork is vital in order to defeat allegations of negligence. Well-organized records, in particular a written maintenance log, may even deter lawsuits from being filed in the first place.

12. Develop Accident Reporting and Analysis System
By tracking accidents that occur on your trail system, you’ll be better equipped to improve your risk management systems. Identifying and addressing hazards, improving emergency services, and providing a higher level of care can result from accident tracking.

13. Deploy a Trail Patrol
When you consider the many benefits of trail patrols, it’s amazing they aren’t utilized more often. From trail inspection and hazard identification to accident reporting and on-the-fly maintenance, a volunteer patrol is the perfect way to accomplish many risk management duties.

14. Purchase or Review an Insurance Policy
Trail managers and volunteer groups should obtain insurance policies that protect them from liability claims resulting from their trail management activities. Other risk transference options exist, but are beyond the scope of this presentation. Consult a risk management expert to investigate other strategies to complement insurance coverage.

15. Recruit Outside Advisors
Enhance your team by adding a risk management consultant or professional recreation manager with risk management experience. Even a one-time consultation can expose liabilities you may have missed.

16. Perform a Periodic Review of the Program
Finally, keep your plan updated. Inevitably, your trail system will evolve, your insurance policy will change, and your trailwork priorities will shift.