If you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, Trek has issued a recall for the QR skewers on certain disk-brake equipped bikes from 2005-present. Full details are here. There are a number of things that surprise me about this recall.
First, I’m surprised by the focus on Trek as the center of the recall. Certainly, they’ve sold a lot of bikes with the affected skewer. However, this is not a Trek part (not made by Trek) and is not proprietary to Trek. Many, many bike manufacturers have sold this skewer on their bikes and wheels, including but not limited to Shimano.
Second, the only way that this product is “dangerous” (air quotes) is if you are riding the bike with the skewer loose, and with the skewer on the brake rotor side of the wheel. Under that circumstance, the skewer can become lodged in the brake rotor, which obviously can have deleterious effects. (Super gnarly skid if it happens in the rear, super nasty OTB if it happens in the front).
I’m an attorney by trade, and I’ve seen some products liability cases in my day. I’m not opining on the validity of this case, but as a matter of not-legal-advice-common-sense, let me say that if you’re riding along and your skewer is loose enough to flop open, you’ve got problems. There is no allegation that the skewers loosen while riding or are otherwise defective in some regard. The allegation is that if the rider fails to properly install the skewer and leaves it flopping loose, it can flop into the brake rotor. Other things that can happen from loose skewers: a) loss of a wheel; b) loss of control; c) serious bodily harm; and, d) incontinence. (Ok, I made that last one up).
I guess it’s a good thing to recall a product that has even a potentially unsafe defect, but it seems odd to recall the product where the defect is based upon clear misuse of the product (particularly where the misuse is independently dangerous, regardless of the design of the product). This isn’t a recall of a brake system that may fail because of its design…this is a recall because a rider who doesn’t properly install his or her wheels may crash. Uhh yes, Mr. Obvious, party of two. Your table is right here.
In the coming weeks, more companies will be issuing recalls of this part, and they will likely not make as widespread of news because Trek is currently the story. I happen to have some insider information on other upcoming product recalls that will be coming from Trek first, and from other bike companies later. Those include:
- All portable tire pumps sold by Trek. If you are riding with one of these in your hand, and you shove it into the spokes of a spinning wheel, it can cause loss of control and/or crashes.
- All helmets ever made by Trek. If you are wearing a helmet and do not have the chin-strap properly adjusted and tightened, the helmet can fly off during a crash, and injury may result.
- All seat posts made by Trek. If you are using a Bontrager brand seatpost and do not have a saddle installed, serious injury may result when jumping your bike.
- All Bontrager stems. If you are using a Bontrager stem and do not properly tighten the screws, loss of directional control may occur, potentially resulting in serious injury.
- All Trek bike frames. If you ride one of these at a high rate of speed and then steer towards a fixed object, injury or even death may result.
This may be a newsflash, but if you fail to use a product properly, injury may result. And generally speaking, if there’s a fastener on your bike, it probably should be properly tightened before you ride.
I suppose I should be clear that this post is written in sarcasm. I appreciate that Trek is taking a step to eliminate a product that has a potential hazard, and that they’re working with governmental agencies in order to address that hazard. I also appreciate that because Trek is a large, successful manufacturer, the scope of this recall is significant. But at a basic, fundamental level, I have to wonder: do the resources put into this issue make sense, when the underlying “defect” is only apparent when a rider wholly misuses the product? (This dedication of resources is not Trek’s fault–they have to comply with federal governmental agencies and also have to mitigate potential lawsuits from people who are unable to figure out that the wheels should actually be secured to the bike before riding).
This recall affects approximately one million bikes. Trek is offering new skewers (figure an investment of $15), and a $20 gift card. That’s an investment of $35,000,000, not counting the free labor that local bike shops will have to volunteer to implement the recall. Conservatively, let’s say that the customer interaction on each recall takes 30 minutes (between confirming eligibility, getting the skewer, and installing replacements, and also including time spent assuring customers who are not affected that, ahem, they are not affected by the recall). That’s 500,000 hours of labor–about 62,500 eight hour work days. If you’re assuming 5 work days per week for 50 weeks per year, that’s 250 work-years of free labor. If you’re assuming that a person will work 50 years in their life (ages 18-68), that’s 5 people’s entire life’s work. Replacing. Skewers.
If you had thirty-five million dollars and 250 work-years of free labor to invest in making cycling safer. Would you spend those resources replacing a product that is only even potentially harmful where the user is incredibly recklessly misusing the product? Man, I can think of some better things to do. I just wish that Trek had the opportunity to do other things with these resources, instead of having to undertake a recall of this nature. At what point is a product “dangerous when flagrantly misused” and at what point is a user responsible for properly using a product? Trek, as a manufacturer, is at the will of regulating agencies and juries in making that determination. As a practical matter, it would seem as though if you cannot figure out how to tighten your skewer before riding, that perhaps the fault of resulting injuries lies with you.
At some point, decisions based upon questionable liability will either phase out of style, or will start having a detrimental impact upon bike utility. From a manufacturer’s perspective, is there less liability involved in designing a bike whose wheels can only be removed at an authorized dealer? Almost certainly. Is that beneficial to the end user? Absolutely not. So where is the line drawn?
The product at the heart of this recall poses no safety risk if used properly. It is only when it is flagrantly misused–installed without being tightened–that it poses any risk. Sure–any reasonable steps that can be taken to prevent rider injuries is great…but at what point are the steps needed to protect the careless from themselves too much to bear? How many trees do we need to install padding on to protect the mountain bikers who refuse to wear helmets?
If the threshold for product recalls is now based upon whether a product, when misused, will injure someone, then we can expect far more recalls, and an adverse impact on biking overall.
POSTSCRIPT: I’ve had a few people email me today and ask what the point of mentioning $35,000,000 and 250 work years is. My point is not to poke Trek, which as my friend T eloquently stated is both a victim and vanguard here. My point is to suggest that if we had $35M and 250 work years to dedicate to a bike-advocacy cause…just think about what we could do. Think about it.