When we think of an automobile accident, we generally think of one caused by driver carelessness, recklessness or distraction. In some cases, however, automobile accidents can be the result of a poorly designed, hazardous, or poorly maintained roadway.
Current state and Federal laws mandate that all public entities be charged with keeping public roadways safe for drivers. The goal is to maintain the roads in a manner which maximizes safety and minimizes the potential for serious or even fatal accidents.
Claims against governmental entities can be full of complexities, and absolutely require a highly skilled personal injury attorney who can advocate on your behalf.
The governmental entities who control the roads have strong defenses in place, therefore proving a dangerous road was the cause of the accident can be a challenge. Structural or design flaws in a road may include one or more of the following:
- Dangerous signals;
- Structural flaws;
- Dangerous curves in the road;
- Dangerous slopes and dips in the road;
- Roadway design flaws;
- Inadequate lighting;
- Inadequate or faulty signage;
- Poorly designed intersections;
- Steep drop-offs;
- Improperly maintained center or side painted lines;
- Defective or missing guardrails;
- Excessive debris;
- Potholes in the road;
- Excessive oil or gravel on the road;
- Signs obscured by trees or bushes;
- Unmarked or blind entries to roadways, or
- Inadequate drainage.
When Dangerous Roads are Responsible for “Roadway Departures”
In 2003, 59 percent of the traffic fatalities occurred when a vehicle left its lane, or ran off the road and crashed. Although there are a number of reasons vehicles may make a roadway departure (including the human factor, weather conditions and animal crossings), a significant number of these departures are related to road design or maintenance issues.
Locations which have unimproved shoulders or substandard curves, or very narrow lanes must have countermeasures in place to ensure the safety of motorists. The six countermeasures which have shown the greatest benefit for the least amount of capital outlay include:
- Widening extremely narrow roads;
- Improving signage on roadways;
- Installing rumble strips and highway stripes;
- Raising median islands;
- Installing median cable barriers, and
- Improving the safety edge (ensuring a drop off of no more than four inches and an appropriate road-to-shoulder angle).
California’s Most Dangerous Road
While there are certainly dangerous roads all across the United States, in the 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics, in the article titled “10 of America’s Most Dangerous Roads,” one California highway made the list. California drivers often refer to California Highway 138 which goes from I-15 to Palmdale, as the “highway of death.”
In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported 56 deaths and 875 injuries on the road during the five years prior to 2000. In fact, the steep, twisty, two-lane road averaged 10 fatalities per year. Road improvements to Highway 138 began in 2006, and, despite numerous delays, the road was eventually widened, with better sight lines created. As a result, the fatality rate has significantly decreased.
Unsafe Roadway Design
Although most roads must comply with the engineering standards in place when the roads were built (rather than current standards), if a specific road has had many accidents, then the responsible entity may be required to upgrade the design.
If a substantial renovation plan is undertaken, the responsible entity may be required to improve the original plan at the same time in order to conform to current design or construction standards.
Proving a road design is defective can be difficult, as governmental entities are well known for their reluctance to settle dangerous road cases. Proving your specific case could require independent professionals such as experts in road design, accident investigators and forensic scientists.
Unless your attorney can clearly show a long history of accidents resulting from the design of the road, it may be necessary to prove that circumstances have changed significantly since the road was built—perhaps the number of cars on the road has greatly increased, or the speed limit has been raised.
Defective guardrail accidents are more common than you might think. Guardrails are in place to protect drivers from dangerous curves, preventing vehicles from leaving the road. Guardrails are typically required on elevated roads or bridges, and sharp curves. Guardrails are designed to minimize the impact of a collision, and should have no more than 75 inches between the posts (older guardrails can have as much as 150 inches between the posts).
The crossbeam of the guardrail must be high enough to keep most vehicles on the road, and the ends should be treated to prevent a car from impaling on the rail.
Making Curves on Roadways as Safe as Possible
Government entities are required to warn drivers of an upcoming curve, including meeting federal standards requiring a sign with an arrow which shows the general shape of the curve, along with a reduced speed limit. Dangerous curves typically have lowered speed limits, however when a curve comes up totally unexpectedly, there must be sufficient advance warning for drivers.
Missing or Improper Road Signage
While properly installed signs can be missing due to a crash or vandalism, if the government entity responsible for the road knew—or should have known—the sign was missing, they may be liable for accidents which result from the lack of signage. Particularly dangerous areas of highway or roads may require additional warning devices such as rumble strips.
Insufficient “Banking” of Curves
“Banking” when it is applied to a road, refers to the way the road tilts on a curve in order to prevent vehicles from flying off the road. In the event a curve is not sufficiently banked, centrifugal force may carry vehicles off the roadway. Insufficient banking of a curve can cause a driver to lose control. If an improperly banked curve was the cause of your accident, your attorney may work with an engineer to determine whether the design of the road was correct as it relates to banking.
What Compensation Can You Expect for Injuries Resulting From a Dangerous Road?
Like any auto accident, some of the resulting injuries from a dangerous road accident can be serious or even catastrophic. Such catastrophic injuries could include:
- Traumatic brain injury;
- Damage to internal organs;
- Disfigurement which could be permanent;
- Serious fractures;
- Loss of limbs;
- Spinal cord injuries, and
As you can imagine, such injuries could result in devastating personal and financial loss. Victims of such injuries could receive compensation for all medical and hospital bills related to the accident, lost wages, impaired earning capacity, pain and suffering, disfigurement, disability, diminished enjoyment of life, actual expenses related to the accident and even compensation for a decreased life expectancy.
Preservation of Vehicle and Road Evidence Can Be Crucial
Evidence left after any vehicle accident can disappear quickly; in the case of a dangerous road accident, it could happen even more quickly. Having a knowledgeable California attorney by your side could make all the difference in preserving this crucial evidence, however there are certain steps you can take which will help your attorney build your dangerous road case. These steps include:
- Have the road site where the accident occurred inspected and photographed;
- Have your vehicle safely stored to preserve its value as evidence;
- Make sure you have a comprehensive list of any witnesses to the accident;
- Review your police and other investigative reports about the street;
Your attorney can help you with the following:
- Arrange for experts to explore the causes of the accident, the dangerous road and the resulting injuries;
- Arrange for your vehicle and its systems to be inspected by experts, and
- Have expert investigators thoroughly investigate the accident scene.
Your attorney will have a goal of proving the governmental entity was aware of a significant highway or road danger, and failed to fix it. This could mean that the government knew of an unsafe roadway condition, had the time to fix it, but did not do so. It could be that a public employee failed to do something, or did something in the wrong way which led to the dangerous roadway. It is important to remember that the governmental entity has no responsibility as far as minor or insignificant road dangers, but does have a responsibility for more significant dangers, particularly those with a history of accidents.
How “Governmental Immunity” May Affect Your Case
Our current legal system grants government immunity in order to prevent courts from second-guessing the governmental entity’s decisions regarding road design. If the design or plan is approved, the governmental entity may be granted immunity from lawsuits, however such immunity can be lost if variations to the design or plan occurred. Immunity may also be eliminated if there was a failure to maintain aspects of the road. In some instances, an experienced attorney may be able to show that even an approved plan was not followed, or that a lack of road maintenance created enough deviations from the plan to negate governmental immunity.
Changing facts—such as the occurrence of a significant number of accidents which signaled a dangerous road condition—puts the government on notice that the original design may no longer be consider reasonable, even though it was approved. A successful government tort claim regarding a dangerous road, requires that your attorney prove several things on your behalf. It must first be determined which governmental entity is responsible for maintenance and repair of the road where your accident occurred, then whether anyone else has noticed the road hazard responsible for your accident. It must be shown that the government knew, or should have known of the existence of the hazard.
If it can be proven the government knew it existed, yet failed to properly warn drivers or make necessary repairs, you may have a solid dangerous road case. In some cases your entire future—or at the very least your quality of life—could have been irrevocably altered through the neglect or carelessness of a governmental entity. City, county and state agencies are responsible for maintaining the roadways and if their negligence directly resulted in your accident, then you deserve compensation for your injuries. Speak with our Los Angeles legal team today to find out if you have a personal injury claim.