There is nothing actually wrong with the quick-release skewer on the front wheel of a million Trek bikes. It’s pretty much the same design used by every bike manufacturer. It’s not a hazard if it is used as designed and as per instructions. But Trek just recalled those million bikes anyway. Why?

A quick-release skewer lets you get your front wheel on and off quickly without a wrench. I have never understood why people have them; (at least for urban cyclists like me) it works just as quickly for bike thieves as it does for bike owners. I always replace them immediately with anti-theft skewers that require a special wrench to remove the nut. (And then I promptly forget the special wrench when I have a flat tire.)

The Trek quick release worked like any other; you hand-tighten the adjusting nut until it is tight and then you press down on the cam lever until it is closed. It’s good practice to have it line up with the frame. Easy and safe.

quick release lever caught in disc brake

But some people don’t do it right. They just use the cam lever as a handle to tighten the nut and leave it open. In the case that caused the recall, the cam lever was on the same side of the bike as the disc brake, and it was pushed down past the fork. It got caught in the disc brake, stopping the front wheel instantly and throwing the cyclist over the handlebars. He was injured and paralyzed. Two others suffered less serious injuries.

Trek might have said this isn’t the company's fault but the fault of the customer, who misused the product — and they would be right. But it's the kind of thing that can be solved through good design. Anticipate the problem (or learn from it) and develop a skewer that cannot go past 180 degrees and get caught, even if the customer does it wrong.

It's a fascinating issue. Who's at fault here? Lots of perfectly safe products become dangerous if improperly used. In fact, lots of very dangerous products are in the marketplace and a certain number of deaths are accepted as part of their use in America, most notably cars and guns. No doubt lots of cyclists have been injured on Trek bikes riding like maniacs into trees and rocks, and there have been thousands of cyclists killed or paralyzed from collisions with cars and trucks. 

But there is a lesson here. Designers learned long ago that part of their job description is to protect people from themselves. If somebody can figure out how to push the cam so that it can go into the brake, they will. If designers can fix the problem, they should. Trek can’t fix crazy cyclists jumping off cliffs, but they can fix this, and that’s good customer relations and good business. I wish more companies thought this way. 

Learn more about the recall on SafeBee here and on how to properly use a quick release in this video:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.