Dangerous Roads: Making that Fatal Turn
Over 25,000 of the 42,643 people killed on our nation’s highways in 2003 died when their vehicles left their lane and crashed. Sometimes these accidents involved vehicles crossing the center line and crashing. Other times they involved crossing into the shoulder and rolling over, dropping down a slope or cliff, or colliding with objects such as trees, poles, walls or abutments. While such accidents may have many causes, one danger often overlooked by lawyers is some problem with road design or maintenance, or what is commonly known as a “dangerous road.”
Dangerous roads are a significant cause of car accidents. A dangerous road can result from faulty design, faulty construction, faulty maintenance, or faulty adaptation to changing conditions. Your attorney should assess whether any or all of these problems may have contributed to the accident that may have resulted in injuries to you or a loved one.
20% of all fatal road accidents involve a single car that runs off the road, often rolling over or colliding with a fixed object. While government defendants often argue that such accidents result from driver error, road conditions may be all or part of the cause of the accident.
Dangerous road cases are difficult and expensive. The government bodies controlling the roads have strong defenses put in place by the government itself. Therefore, proving that a road caused an accident can be a challenge. Investigation of the accident site and its history requires substantial attorney work, expense, and expertise. But successful cases not only benefit the client: they directly force changes in dangerous conditions that can save lives – changes that might not otherwise occur at all.
What Exactly is Personal Injury?
Some Dangerous Road Conditions That Cause Accidents
Road hazards most often stem from faulty design, construction, maintenance, or failure by the government to make road changes to adapt to new conditions. The following are some examples of each type of dangerous road condition:
- Dangerous curves in road layout
- Dangerous slopes and dips in road layout
- Hazards obstructing visibility at intersections and crosswalks
- Street drop-offs such as ravines or cliffs
- Entrance and exit ramps that are too short or don’t allow safe merging
- Defective or missing guard rails causing dangerous street conditions, especially in construction zones
- Pavement with inadequate skid resistance
- Improper drainage that leads to dangerous street surfaces, resulting in ponding or hydroplaning
- Parking policies that limit visibility of a dangerous intersection
- Absent, defective, or improper warning signage
- Poorly placed highway traffic signals
- Shoulders that are not visibly distinct enough from the road.
- Failure to follow approved plans properly
- Shoddy materials
- Shoddy workmanship
- Allowing road surfaces to become dangerous, as with potholes
- Allowing guardrails to become dangerous
- Allowing dangerous highway traffic control lights
- Allowing erosion and lowered visibility of painted markers
- Allowing signage and warnings to deteriorate or be removed
Defective Failure to Adapt
- Road subsidence (sinking)
- Road cave-ins
- Changing use patterns by pedestrians and vehicles
- Ignoring evidence that accidents keep occurring on a dangerous road
First Steps to Take After Your Accident
If a dangerous road may have caused your accident, you need to see a dangerous roads attorney immediately. Your lawyer may secure your wrecked vehicle and have an engineer with expertise in road design or crashworthiness inspect it. The engineer can determine the angle and speed at which the car left the road. Skid marks must be photographed and measured without delay. Often, if there were injuries, the police will have done so.
Your attorney may obtain topographical maps, photos showing warning signs, and plans for building the road. This material may reveal street design, construction, or maintenance flaws.
How Your Dangerous Roads Attorney Can Gather Evidence for Your Case
Dangerous roads cases are especially complex. The defendant is not another individual or insurance company, but more likely a city, county or state with ample legal resources and funding, and a strong desire to prevent your suit from being successful. Your attorney may need to have the car and road examined quickly. Ideally, the lawyer will already have working relationships with a competent traffic engineer and an accident reconstruction expert, whose evaluation will help determine whether a case is viable and what evidence is necessary for the case. The lawyer should then examine the evidence available and work with his experts to show that no governmental immunity should prevent the suit from proceeding. This process may require substantial discovery, interviews and depositions to show that the government knew or should have known of the dangerous condition.
A Case May Exist Even Where the Driver in a Dangerous Roads Accident is Partly at Fault
Even when a driver bears fault for an accident, it is smart to consult with a lawyer to explore whether the government agencies responsible for the road may be held liable for its percentage of culpability for driver or passenger injuries. The issue in these cases is whether the government has failed to fulfill its obligations, which include making a road somewhat forgiving of driver error. This is especially critical when a highway or road has been the site of previous accidents.
Compensation for Your Injuries
Common injuries caused by dangerous roads may include serious and catastrophic injuries such as:
- Spinal cord injuries, paralysis, paraplegia and quadriplegia
- Loss of limbs
- Internal organ damage
- Head injuries and brain damage
The injuries caused by dangerous road accidents can have devastating personal and financial impacts. The losses for which a victim might receive compensation include loss of past and future wages, impaired earning capacity, medical and hospital bills and actual expenses related to the accident. A victim may also recover for current and future pain, disfigurement, disability, diminished enjoyment of life, the body’s decreased ability to fight off infections and illness, and a decreased life expectancy. In catastrophic accidents, the damage may include lifetime medical care and assisted living. Your attorney should have access to experts, such as economists, vocational rehabilitation experts, and treating physicians to help assess the types and extent of compensation that can be sought given the injuries suffered in your accident.
Dangerous Road Cases are Expensive and Complex: Choose Your Attorney Carefully
Dangerous road cases are costly and complex and require the expertise of a lawyer with substantial case preparation skills, monetary resources and litigation experience. Lawyers handling these cases must be prepared to fight a long, difficult and expensive battle against the government in order to give his client the best chances of success.
Your accident lawyer should begin asking questions immediately: Was your accident caused by malfunctioning traffic lights or other inadequate street signage? Did you lose control of your vehicle on a dangerous curve? Did a street surface condition such as a pothole or defective pavement trigger a collision?
In order to answer those questions, preserving vehicle and road evidence is critical. The following tasks often need to be performed without delay:
- Ensuring that the road site is inspected and photographed,
- Arranging to have your vehicle stored safely in order to preserve its evidentiary value,
- Conducting interviews of all eye witnesses and bystanders at the time, while the accident is fresh in their minds, including police, paramedics, and tow truck operators,
- Reviewing all police and other investigative reports about the street,
- Investigating the accident scene with appropriate experts and investigators,
- Arranging for qualified experts to thoroughly inspect the vehicle and its systems, and
- Arranging for qualified experts to explore the causes of the rollover accident and injuries
The Road Design We Have a Right to Expect
Agencies that design and maintain roads and highways have a continuing duty to ensure that street conditions will not imperil motorists exercising reasonable care. Inevitably, cars will sometimes skid, slide, be cut off by other traffic, or run off the side of roads, especially ones with unsafe curves. Drivers will inevitably sometimes fall asleep or be distracted and lose control of their vehicles. One marker of an unsafe highway or road is the failure to take reasonable steps to keep such foreseeable events from turning tragic.
Drivers have a right to expect that their government won’t allow dangerous roads to cause accidents. Avoiding dangerous roads means taking many steps to protect vehicle and pedestrian safety:
- Providing recovery zones that let a driver who strays from the road get back onto it
- Providing guardrails to protect cars from dangerous street hazards such as trees, poles, cliffs, or ravines
- Avoiding dangerous curves by banking them to keep even speeding cars from flying off a road
- Offering adequate signage warning of hazardous highway or road conditions
- Installing rumble strips, bumps, or grooves to let drivers know they are straying from a lane
How Attorneys Prove that a Road Caused an Accident
Winning a dangerous road accident case involves proving that the government knew of a significant highway or road danger and failed to fix it. This often means showing that a public employee wrongly did, or failed to do, something that caused that dangerous street condition. Other times, it means showing that the government knew (or should have known) that an unsafe highway or road condition existed and had time to fix it, but did not do so.
The government must act reasonably to prevent hazardous roads. It must ensure that there is no substantial risk of injury when someone uses a road, with due care, in a reasonably foreseeable way. The government does not have to prevent dangerous road conditions that are trivial, minor, or insignificant, but only substantial ones. A history, or lack of history, of accidents on a given road or highway may help to show whether a risk is substantial, but it is not conclusive.
Examples of Conditions Creating Dangerous Roads and Highways
While we cannot review here all of the types of highway, road or street conditions that can cause serious accidents, examples of dangerous street conditions include those described below:
- Crosswalks can create an unsafe intersection
- Inadequate visibility can create a perilous street, especially for children
- Guardrail defects can create a dangerous highway
- Poor warning signs on curves can create a dangerous highway
- Defective banking on curves can create a hazardous condition
- Lack of a median divider can create a dangerous highway
- Placement of utility poles can create a hazardous street
- The presence of roadside hazards can create a dangerous highway
Poorly Designed or Maintained Crosswalks May Result in an Unsafe Intersection
Sometimes crosswalks are created by traffic planners in places where oncoming cars cannot see them, especially around dangerous curves or near intersections with insufficient traffic controls. Other times, a once well-designed crosswalk may have become a road hazard with the passage of time, such as when the crosswalk’s paint becomes so worn that drivers approaching the intersection cannot see it. When this occurs, the crosswalk becomes a road trap for pedestrians who are lulled into thinking that it is safe.
When an accident occurs on a crosswalk, your dangerous roads lawyer may seek evidence that establishes the crossing as an unsafe intersection. An attorney may find it feasible to obtain blueprints of the intersection, the plans for warning signage, and any changes that have been ordered to those plans, which might reflect dangerous conditions. The lawyer may obtain studies of traffic volume and speed at the site, as well as photographs of the street site from street level and overhead. In addition, the attorney may obtain documentation of the accident history at the crosswalk, including police reports, complaints about the site, and evidence of the service record of signals at the intersection.
Inadequate Visibility May Result in a Hazardous Intersection
When a child runs onto the street from between two parked cars, even a driver using due care may not have the time to stop. Especially where children are concerned, the government has a responsibility to ensure that children are visible when they cross the street even at an unmarked intersection. Given the foreseeable likelihood that children will cross the street, your dangerous roads lawyer may evaluate whether design flaws, such as allowing cars to park where they impair visibility of an unmarked crosswalk, create an unsafe intersection. Your attorney may decide whether various factors such as the proximity to schools or average vehicle speed should have required stronger efforts to avoid a potential hazard.
Inadequate Guardrails on Curves
Many accidents involve defective guardrails. Guardrails protect drivers from dangerous curves by indicating the course of the road and protecting vehicles from leaving the road. Guardrails may be required on elevated roads and bridges, as well as on locations that have other unsafe street conditions such as sharp curves where obstacles such as trees or posts are near the road or highway. When a car has been driven off of a highway, your attorney or his expert may measure the distance to hazardous objects, the drop-off after the road, and the width of any recovery zone, to see whether a guardrail was required.
Even concrete “Jersey barriers” won’t stop a speeding truck that hits them headlong, but guardrails should be designed to minimize the impact of reasonably foreseeable highway accidents. For example, guardrails should have no more than 75 inches between posts; many older guardrails have 150 inches between posts – not enough to direct cars back onto the road. Your lawyer may investigate whether a guardrail’s crossbeams are high enough to keep a car on the road, whether the ends of a guardrail are treated to prevent a car from impaling itself on it, and so on.
Poor Warning Signs on Curves
The government must warn drivers of hazards on a highway or road. This includes meeting federal standards that require signs with an arrow showing the general shape of a curve, along with a speed limit. While dangerous curves on a road will often have low speed limits, an unexpected sharp curve after a stretch of straight road may lack sufficient advance warning that drivers must slow down and pay attention. The question of what signage a highway requires is sometimes not considered an important part of a road plan. However, signs installed after an accident has occurred are clearly insufficient for those who suffered injuries due to a hazardous street condition.
Even where a sign on a highway or road has been planned and installed, it may later be removed by a crash or vandalism. If the government that owned and operated that highway or road was on notice that such a sign had been removed, the government must replace it within a reasonable time or it may face liability. In some cases, a dangerous highway or road might require an additional warning device, such as a rumble strip, as well as signs. A lawyer will research and evaluate whether the existing signage on a dangerous highway is adequate for its intended purpose of warning motorists of unsafe street conditions.
Defective Banking of Curves
The “banking” of a road refers to the way it is tilted in order to keep cars from flying over dangerous curves – as is often seen on racetracks – or for other purposes such as water drainage. A curve may not be banked enough to prevent centrifugal force from carrying a vehicle off of the highway.
An unsafe curve is a prime example of dangerous road design: it can lead drivers to lose control of the car as they steer to avoid going off the highway. A well-designed curve on a high-speed road will be higher at the outside to reduce the angle at which drivers must steer. The effects of aging, and years of heavy traffic, can distort the banking and create a dip in the road – possibly leading a driver to lose control over a car. A lawyer may check for the presence of a dip in the road and work with an engineer to determine whether the road is banked properly.
Lack of a Median Divider
A dangerous highway may be one that lacks a median divider. Cross-median accidents occur when drivers lose control of a vehicle despite using due care, for reasons such as sudden illness, mechanical failure, or animals or debris in the road. But cases involving median dividers are still subject to the defense of government immunity, discussed above. Your dangerous roads lawyer may identify the evidence that would be needed to counter an assertion of immunity.
Placement of Utility Poles
Utility poles account for over 76 percent of all pole collisions in the country; a report on street accidents showed that, in 2000 alone, over 60,000 people were injured in collisions with utility poles. Utility poles can be sited unreasonably, creating a dangerous condition. Your attorney may explore what reasonable alternatives were and are available, such as relocating or reducing the number of poles, installing barriers or crash cushions, or using breakaway poles. Where the presence of a utility pole has created a hazardous situation, rejecting such alternatives may give rise to liability.
The Presence of Roadside Hazards
Roads are designed to have “clear zones” to each side, where a vehicle that strays off the road can recover and return to safety. These zones should be reasonably wide and free of unsafe street obstacles. Your lawyer may assess whether the clear zones are adequate given the design of a road where an accident occurred. Obstacles such as trees should be kept from encroaching on roads. Your attorney may explore issues of road maintenance as well as design in assessing these hazards.
Getting Past the Defense of ‘Governmental Immunity’
Dangerous road cases are especially difficult because the law grants governments immunity to prevent courts from second-guessing their reasonable decisions about how to design roads. An approved design or plan will often provide immunity from lawsuits, although that immunity may be lost if the actual design or plan varies enough from what has been approved. The failure to maintain or keep up aspects of the highway or road may also eliminate immunity.
Even proving that a dangerous road condition exists may not remove immunity from the government. The government will try to prove that the road hazard that you believe caused or contributed to the accident is due to an aspect of the original plan, and that that plan was reasonable and was approved. If the government has followed that plan, and had no reason to believe that it was no longer reasonable, it is immune from suit. However, your lawyer may be able to show that the plan was not followed from the beginning. Failures in road maintenance may also have caused sufficient deviations from the plan to eliminate immunity. Finally, changing facts – such as the occurrence of accidents signaling dangerous street conditions or physical deterioration of a dangerous street surface or support – may have put the government on notice that the design could no longer be considered reasonable.
“Sign immunity” means that many of the government’s decisions regarding warnings to be placed on (or omitted from) a dangerous road cannot be second-guessed by the court. The mere fact that a government does not provide traffic or warning signs, signals, markings or devices for a given dangerous road, intersection, or curve does not mean that it is at fault – even if the driver injured in a dangerous road accident exercised due care with their vehicle. To defeat the governmental sign immunity, your attorney may have to prove an additional fact: that the government knew or should have known that omitting signs and warnings of these particular street conditions was not reasonable.
Choosing the Right Lawyer for Your Dangerous Road Case
Choosing the right attorney can make a critical difference in the outcome of these expensive and highly complex cases, which must be fought against a tenacious and well-financed government.
The Reeves Law Group has successfully represented thousands of accident victims and has obtained exceptional results in all types of serious and catastrophic injury cases. If you or a loved one has been injured in a dangerous roads accident, we may be able to help you receive compensation for your losses. Call us at (800) 644-8000 or email us for a free consultation.