Insight

Dangerous Conditions Ahead

Think the roads are safer because people are cooped up at home? Think again. Hidden dangers, made worse by the economic effects of the pandemic, are perilous for drivers everywhere.

Dangerous Conditions Ahead
BS

Brett J. Schreiber

April 9, 2021 11:55 AM

Fewer cars are on the road these days than at any time in recent history, but the dangers of public thoroughfares haven’t gone away—and many are hiding in plain sight. Adding to the potential peril, drivers feel more at ease to speed on roads with fewer vehicles and less-visible law enforcement. The situation is compounded further still by the pandemic, given that maintenance along rural two-lane highways—the majority of roads in the United States—is often neglected even in “normal times.”

With tax revenue drying up, state governments have been hit hard, and departments of transportation (DOTs) haven’t been spared. As such, while road maintenance is often deferred even in periods of robust revenue, in times of attrition it’s an area of government service that truly suffers.

Motorists aren’t likely to think of road maintenance every time they turn over their ignition, but such modest-seeming problems as drop-offs at the road’s edge, overhanging trees and other deferred repair work are a recipe for serious injury and, often, fatal collisions.

Preventable Collisions by the Numbers

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Accident Recording System, 53 percent of fatal crashes can be attributed to roadway departures. In real numbers, that translates to 34,017 fatal crashes annually, with roadway departures responsible for 19,753 of those, resulting in more than 22,000 deaths a year. To put an even finer point on it: 59 people in the United States will die in a roadway-departure crash today. That’s one fatality every 24 minutes, and more than half of those deaths will occur on a two-lane highway.

Over the past few years, we’ve been asked to investigate, and then litigate, many cases of preventable collisions caused by poor road maintenance. Pavement-edge drop-offs of greater than three inches are common on undivided two-lane highways throughout the country—a consequence of many state DOTs’ lack of understanding of the danger these conditions present, not prioritizing funding for repairs, and the failure of DOT maintenance personnel to appreciate the need to fix these problems.

Poorly Maintained Roadway Edges

In a typical driver overcorrection, the vehicle departs the road, typically on a horizontal curve. The car experiences “tire scrubbing” as it attempts to right itself, over-responds as a result of the loss of friction upon remount—and a cross-centerline head-on collision ensues.

The tragic stories are seemingly endless. One recent case that inspired this piece concerned a commercial courier traveling within the posted speed limit on an undivided two-lane road in San Diego. As the driver’s vehicle entered a slight curve, his passenger-side wheels left the road, his tires scrubbed, and upon reentry he lost control and collided head-on with a minivan carrying a family of eight. The mother and two small children in the minivan were killed; other occupants were badly hurt, with injuries ranging from paraplegia to traumatic brain injury. The matter resulted in a $23 million verdict against the California Department of Transportation.

State DOTs have known about the dangers of pavement-edge drop-offs, and the need to fix them, for decades. Many have a two-inch standard, requiring shoulders to be backfilled or otherwise repaired when a drop-off is greater than that. Such standards have been in place for more than 40 years in California and many other jurisdictions, yet these types of crashes inexcusably continue to represent a majority of roadway-departure fatalities.

Deadly Overhanging Trees

As ubiquitous as pavement drop-offs have become, poorly maintained trees hanging over roads are another prominent danger. Again, as tax revenue has dried up, maintenance budgets have been slashed and basic safety measures ignored.

In a case we recently dealt with, a 2,500-pound tree limb hanging over a two-lane road in a rural part of San Diego snapped off just as our client was passing underneath on her motorcycle. The injuries she sustained left her a paraplegic. The tree had been damaged by fire a year earlier, was obviously rotting, and was within the state’s right of way.

The evidence showed that the tree had been pruned by DOT personnel to maintain the necessary 17 feet of clearance required for semi-truck traffic to pass beneath. For reasons that discovery will bear out, though, DOT personnel were either aware of the danger posed by the tree and did nothing, or they simply ignored or forgot about it until it was too late. Tree removal would have cost the state a few thousand dollars; instead, it will likely be on the hook for an eight-figure liability for the lifetime care needs of our paralyzed client.

If you or someone you love is injured in a serious collision, the other driver may not be the only party held responsible. In fact, the other driver—if there is one—might not be responsible at all. State laws and federal regulations require that our roadways be maintained for the safety of all drivers. When the responsible government entity breaches the public trust, it must be held accountable. The deadline to file claims is often very short—within six months of the accident or less—and these cases pose unique challenges and legal obstacles. It’s imperative to find a lawyer well-versed in the legal twists and turns inherent to holding the government responsible for dangerous roads.

Brett J. Schreiber is a partner at Singleton Schreiber McKenzie & Scott, LLP, a plaintiffs’ and criminal defense super-firm, offering a breadth and depth of services that is unrivaled nationwide. The trial and appellate lawyers of Singleton Schreiber McKenzie & Scott bring to bear decades of experience in: Serious Personal Injury; Mass Torts; Wildfire Litigation; Civil Rights; Medical Malpractice; White Collar and Federal Criminal Defense; and Appeals.

Headline Image: ISTOCK/SHAUNL

Trending Articles

The 2024 Best Lawyers in Spain™


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in Spain™ and the third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Spain™ for 2024.

Tall buildings and rushing traffic against clouds and sun in sky

Best Lawyers Expands Chilean 2024 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is pleased to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Chile™ and the inaugural edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Chile™, honoring the top lawyers and firms conferred on by their Chilean peers.

Landscape of city in Chile

Best Lawyers Expands 2024 Brazilian Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Brazil™ and the first edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Brazil™.

Image of Brazil city and water from sky

Announcing The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ for 2024, including the exclusive "Law Firm of the Year" awards.

Sky view of South Africa town and waterways

The Best Lawyers in Mexico Celebrates a Milestone Year


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in Mexico™ and the second edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Mexico™ for 2024.

Sky view of Mexico city scape

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

The Best Lawyers in Portugal™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 awards for Portugal include the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Portugal™ and 2nd edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Portugal™.

City and beach with green water and blue sky

The Best Lawyers in Peru™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 10th edition of The Best Lawyers in Peru, the prestigious award recognizing the country's lop legal talent.

Landscape of Peru city with cliffside and ocean

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide is now live and includes recognitions for all Best Lawyers family law awards. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Man entering home and hugging two children in doorway

The Best Lawyers in Colombia™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Colombia™ for 2024, which honors Colombia's most esteemed lawyers and law firms.

Cityscape of Colombia with blue cloudy sky above

Announcing the 2024 Best Lawyers in Puerto Rico™


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to announce the 11th edition of The Best Lawyers in Puerto Rico™, honoring the top lawyers and firms across the country for 2024.

View of Puerto Rico city from the ocean

Canada Makes First Foray Into AI Regulation


by Sara Collin

As Artificial Intelligence continues to rise in use and popularity, many countries are working to ensure proper regulation. Canada has just made its first foray into AI regulation.

People standing in front of large, green pixelated image of buildings

Commingling Assets


by Tamires M. Oliveira

Commingling alone does not automatically turn an otherwise immune asset into an asset subject to marital distribution as explained by one family law lawyer.

Toy house and figure of married couple standing on stacks of coins

How To Check a Lawyer's Reputation


by Best Lawyers

If you find yourself facing legal issues, researching and hiring a lawyer with a solid track record and high level of credibility can make all the difference.

Figure holding a magnify glass over digital profile

What Is a Retainer Fee for a Lawyer?


by Best Lawyers

In this article, Best Lawyers breaks down exactly what a retainer fee is, why lawyers utilize them and what clients should expect when seeking legal guidance.

Two animated hands exchange money and contracts