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

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

Related Articles

Hello, I’m Calling About Your Car’s Extended Warranty

by Victoria E. Langley

The battle against robocalls and phone scammers is as old as communications technology itself. Thankfully, the federal government has stepped up its efforts to combat the scourge.

Hello, I’m Calling About Your Car’s Extended

Fighting Back Against the COVID-19 Scammers

by Danielle Braff

Scams related to the pandemic have been a major growth industry the last 12 months. Here’s what to watch out for—and how to fight back.

Fighting Back Against the COVID-19 Scammers

Hell on Three Wheels

by Rachel A. Shrewsbury

Product safety can seem like an abstraction, but when I was a child faulty vehicle design proved all too real—and almost deadly. Three cheers for the consumer advocates who work tirelessly to keep defenseless kids from irreparable harm.

Hell on Three Wheels

Protection for Protectors

by Mario C. Giannettino and Steven D. Weiner

The pandemic sent shockwaves throughout the already burdened U.S. health-care system. Still, there are several measures providers can enact to ensure they’re ready for litigation should it come to pass.

Protection for Protectors

The Unkindest Cut

by Aria Gmitter

Want to save money by dealing with unregulated amateurs in hair care or a hundred other professions? You might be courting disaster, as my tormented tresses will testify.

The Unkindest Cut

Unmasking Medical Mistakes

by David M. Carter

Use of electronic medical records has exploded in recent years. Their adoption has brought forth an unintended consequence: the ability for unscrupulous caregivers to alter the facts of a case. Forensic experts are helping lawyers fight back.

Unmasking Medical Mistakes

Trending Articles

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez

by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: The Best Lawyers Honorees Behind the Litigation

by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyers takes a look at the recognized legal talent representing Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in their ongoing defamation trial.

Lawyers for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

Announcing The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from the United Kingdom.

The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom 2023

Announcing The Best Lawyers in France™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from France.

Blue, white and red strips

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Germany™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Germany.

Black, red and yellow stripes

Education by Trial: Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom

by Margo Pierce

The intricacies of complex lawsuits require extensive knowledge of the legal precedent. But they also demand a high level of skill in every discipline needed to succeed at trial, such as analyzing technical reports and deposing expert witnesses.

Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Belgium™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Belgium.

Black, yellow and red stripes

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in France

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms, including our inaugural Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch recipients.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in France

We Are Women, We Are Fearless

by Deborah S. Chang and Justin Smulison

Athea Trial Lawyers is a female owned and operated law firm specializing in civil litigation, catastrophic energy, wrongful death and product liability.

Athea Trial Law Female Leadership and Success

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect

by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Germany

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms, including our inaugural Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch recipients.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Germany

U.K. Introduces Revisions to Right-to-Work Scheme and Immigration Rules

by Gregory Sirico

Right-to-Work Scheme and Immigration Rules in

Destiny Fulfilled

by Sara Collin

Was Angela Reddock-Wright destined to become a lawyer? It sure seems that way. Yet her path was circuitous. This accomplished employment attorney, turned mediator, arbitrator and ADR specialist nonpareil discusses her career, the role of attorneys in society, the new world of post-pandemic work and why new Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson represents the future.

Interview with Lawyer Angela Reddock-Wright

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some

by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?