Road Conditions and Auto Accidents

Sometimes the condition of the roadway will cause or contribute to a motor vehicle accident, or worsen the injuries suffered in an accident. For example, drivers who hit potholes on poorly maintained roads may experience a blowout or even lose control of their vehicles. If a guardrail or protective barrier is defective, a vehicle that might otherwise have been stopped may cross into oncoming traffic or go over a steep drop-off or into a body of water.

Issues of road and highway design and maintenance may thus play a role in injury litigation or insurance claims arising from car accidents.

Road Conditions That Affect Driver Safety

The following factors affecting road conditions may play a role in a motor vehicle accident:

Road Design

Road and highway design is complex. Factors that people take for granted, such as the alignment of a road, the degree to which it is banked, the visibility of road signs and markings, and the nature and condition of the surface material, all contribute to road safety. Factors in the design of a roadway that may contribute to accidents include:

  • Road layouts that make it difficult to see other vehicles on the road or approaching at intersections;
  • Hazardous pinch points that are created through poor lane design and markings;
  • The presence of dangerous obstacles on or near the roadway; and
  • Inadequate signs and traffic controls;
  • Inadequate nighttime illumination; and
  • Increased danger to drivers as a result of adverse weather conditions.

Poor Maintenance

In order to remain safe, roads must be periodically maintained. Maintenance may include repair of the road surface, repair or replacement of worn or damaged road signs, and removal of debris from the road surface. The failure of the responsible party to properly maintain a road may cause or contribute to an accident, through such factors as:

  • The accumulation of debris on the road that may affect traction, cause cars to have to swerve to avoid hazards, or may be thrown up by tires into the windshields of other vehicles;
  • The presence of potholes or other wear of the road surface;
  • Deterioration or fading of road signs and lane markings;
  • Overgrown trees and foliage that obscure road signs or obstruct a driver's line of sight; and
  • Inadequate snow removal or insufficient salting and sanding.

Bad Weather

When the weather turns bad, driving conditions may become more dangerous:

  • Road surfaces may become slick or slippery.
  • Accumulated snow, slush or ice, or pooled water on the road, may make driving more hazardous.

Even when drivers respond appropriately to weather conditions by reducing their speed and proceeding with due caution, other drivers may operate their vehicles in a manner that creates risk:

  • A driver who does not respect the weather conditions, and drives without regard for the dangers that arise from bad weather, may cause an accident with the vehicle of a more cautious driver.
  • A driver who is excessively cautious may cause other drivers to become impatient, and attempt to pass their vehicles under unsafe conditions.

At times, weather conditions will render it unsafe to drive at any speed. When that occurs, such as during a white out or blizzard, drivers should seek a safe place to get off of the road, and should remain stationary until weather conditions improve and it is again safe to drive.

Drivers who are operating their vehicles at times of year when they are likely to have their windshields splattered with dirty snow or water, slush, mud or salt should make sure that their windshield solvent is full, so that they can clean their windshield as necessary.

Liability of Government Agencies

When a road has not been properly maintained, a motorist who desires compensation for property damage or injuries that result from an accident may seek compensation from the government agency that is responsible for the maintenance of the road.

Issues that may arise when making a claim against a government agency include notice, sovereign immunity and the statute of limitations.

Notice of the Problem

Before a government agency may be held liable for the poor condition of a road or highway, it is necessary that the government agency have notice of the problem with the roadway and an opportunity to correct or repair the hazardous condition. If a government agency is unaware of a problem, or is aware but has not had adequate time or opportunity to respond, it may not be possible to make a successful claim against the agency for damages.

Government agencies may learn of problems with roads either through periodic inspection, or through reports of problems that are made by motorists.

If the agency is not aware of a problem due to its failure to properly inspect the roads under its jurisdiction, and it is due to the agency's inadequate practices that a hazard that caused an accident was not addressed before the accident occurred, it may be possible to make a claim even though the agency was not actually aware of the problem. However, in the absence of proof of both notice and of reasonable opportunity to respond it may not be possible to succeed with such a claim.

Sovereign Immunity

When an accident occurs on a public road, a lawsuit against a government agency that alleges negligence in the design, construction or maintenance of a road or highway may be defended with a claim of sovereign immunity or governmental immunity, laws that limit an injured person's ability to sue the government.

A government agency may also have a defense based upon a lack of notice. If the governmental unit or agency that is responsible for maintaining a road is not aware of the dangerous condition, or has not had adequate time to respond and correct the condition before an accident occurs, the agency may not be liable for a roadway condition that causes or contributes to an accident.

Sovereign immunity laws and exceptions vary between states and analysis of immunity claims is fact-dependent and complex, and it may be necessary to use expert witness testimony to prove a claim. Thus, after an accident for which road design may have been a factor, an injured person should consult an injury lawyer who is experienced with road design claims.

Statute of Limitations

All claims for property damage or injuries that are made against government agencies are subject to a statute of limitations, a law that limits the amount of time that a person has to make a claim or file a lawsuit. After the statute of limitations expires, the statute may be raised as a bar to a legal claim.

The statute of limitations for a claim against a government agency may be very short. States may also impose notice requirements, such that an injured person must serve a notice of intent to sue upon an agency before filing a lawsuit. It is thus important that drivers who have potential damages claims against a government agency exercise diligence in order to avoid missing a deadline for action.

Driver Duties

When drivers operate their vehicles, they are expected to exercise an appropriate level of care and concern for the lives and safety of others. Drivers should pay attention to the road conditions and adjust their speed based upon road and weather conditions, the condition of the road surface, traffic congestion or back-ups, and other factors that may affect driving safety.

Every state imposes a duty upon drivers to reduce their speed to a safe speed. Sometimes the safe speed is well below the posted speed limit and, in extreme weather conditions, sometimes the safe speed on a road may be zero miles per hour. That is, sometimes the only safe thing to do is to pull over to the side of the road and wait for conditions to improve.

If you are involved in an accident as the result of road conditions, and the investigating officer concludes that you were driving at a speed in excess of what was reasonably safe under the circumstances, you may receive a ticket for driving at an unsafe speed. Your speed may also become a factor in a subsequent insurance claim for vehicle damage, or in the assessment of fault for an accident in the event of a personal injury claim.

Even if the accident was caused in part by road conditions, if you are involved in an accident and did not exercise an appropriate level of care under the circumstances you may potentially be held liable for property damage and injuries that result from the accident.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.