Defective and Dangerous Roads: What You Need to Know
Our roads in South Carolina are in substandard shape and growing worse all the time. Although federal funding to repair failing roads all over the U.S. was approved in the fall of 2015, little of the work has yet to begin. Of course, our state is hardly unique. Like many places in the country, infrastructure and roads are growing ever-older, and repairs are not keeping pace. According to a January, 2015, report, 46 percent of SC’s major roads and highways were rated as being in poor condition during 2014. At nearly half, that’s a sharp increase from 2008, when only 32 percent of major roads and highways were considered poor.
South Carolina’s Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall laid it on the line during her “State of the DOT” address in late January, 2016. Hall awarded the state’s roads with a “D” grade for regular maintenance, saying that most of us drive on poorly-paved roads.
In the U.S., roadway conditions substantially factor into around one-third of all traffic deaths. In SC, our traffic fatalities run much higher than the national average: 1.57 deaths per 100 million miles driven in our state, versus 1.09 nationwide. On our rural roads, it’s much worse: 3.40 deaths per 100 million miles driven in SC, versus 0.69 nationwide. Accidents pick our pockets in SC to the tune of $3.3 billion a year, which is $831 for each man, woman, and child in the Palmetto State, once you figure in all the costs.
Enough numbers, right? Let’s go to the heart of the problem.
Road Defects, Shoddy Maintenance, and Flawed Design
Roads that are in disrepair aren’t just a theoretical problem for the government to solve. A damaged road, or a poorly-designed road, can put lives at jeopardy. You probably don’t think much about the condition or design of the roads you travel regularly, unless they are extremely poor. But we depend on our roads to be in good repair and well-designed so we can get to where we need to go. Unfortunately, a number of different problems can occur with either the design or the maintenance of a road:
- Shoulder drop-offs. The shoulder is supposed to provide a place for people to pull over in case of emergency or distress. Road shoulders are generally made of an aggregate material that degrades over time. As the shoulder of the road erodes, this can create a steep drop-off, with the shoulder area becoming several inches lower than the road. In such a situation, the driver is more likely to lose control. In early 2016, an Iowan widow of a motorcyclist won her wrongful death case due to a drop-off.
- Uneven pavement. Different areas of the road may become worn away unevenly over time. Cracks, rises or dips can develop, creating an obstacle course for drivers to navigate that result in driver distraction or a loss of vehicular control. Motorcycle riders are particularly prone to accidents caused by uneven pavement.
- Potholes. Potholes can cause a tire blowout or result in a driver’s losing control of their vehicle. Many potholes go unrepaired and can go unnoticed by drivers—until they hit one. You likely remember the last time you hit one hard.
- Water pooling. When there are dips or when roads are not properly designed to allow for proper drainage, this can create a slippery spot that interferes with the traction of the car. Pooled water can cause a car to hydroplane or spin out of control, resulting in an accident.
- Missing guardrails or a lack of guardrails. Guardrails can lessen the severity of a crash by absorbing the impact of a collision, keep a car from driving off the side of a bridge or other elevated road, or restrain a crash to one side of the highway. Guardrails can also prevent you from going into a body of water or a tree. Unfortunately, when a guardrail is missing or damaged, it can’t serve any of these important functions.
- Missing signs. Signs may delineate crosswalks, tell a driver to stop or yield, indicate what a safe driving speed is, tell people what direction to go in, and forbid dangerous behaviors like unsafe U-turns or right turns on red. When there are no signs, drivers might not know what to do.
- Improper placement of road signs or stoplights. If road signs or stoplights are placed where people cannot see them, then it is just as much of a problem as if the signs are missing entirely. Improperly placed signs can also block a driver’s line of vision.
- Debris or other objects in the road. Such obstacles can cause a driver to lose control or crash in an attempt to avoid the item or after hitting it.
- Poorly designed intersections or low-visibility areas, including bad landscaping and blind curves. If an intersection or other road is designed in such a way that visibility is compromised or drivers can’t see oncoming traffic, this creates an extremely dangerous situation.
- Insufficiently-banked curves, low overpasses, poorly-designed passing lanes, narrow lanes, confusing traffic patterns, and short acceleration or deceleration lanes at exits can cause accidents.
These are just a few of the many examples of road design or construction defects that can put motorists at risk in South Carolina. Cyclists and pedestrians may also have additional problems with sidewalk design or with the design, location and maintenance of bike lanes.
If you have an accident you suspect is due to a poorly maintained or designed road, it is critical that you document the scene of the accident, including as many photos and videos as you can, as long as doing so does not endanger anyone. The above listing of road defects can help serve as your guide when it comes to what you should document.
Holding the Responsible Party Accountable
Usually, it is a government agency or other government entity that is responsible for the design and maintenance of the road. This can create a very tricky situation when someone gets hurt in a car accident due to road design or road maintenance.
There are governmental immunity protections that limit when a government employee or agency can be sued. While government immunity isn’t absolute, it is often harder to make a case and win, since there are strict time limits and additional requirements that must be met. These types of cases can be very complicated because a public entity (government agency) is normally in charge of designing and maintaining roads.
However, don’t let these facts discourage you. It is entirely possible that you can win your case. During a span of six years, from 2005 through 2010, SC’s Insurance Reserve Fund paid more than $30 million to resolve claims against our state’s DOT. Most of the claims involved alleged road defects. The claims include damage to vehicles, injuries, and even deaths due to accidents caused by road defects. An experienced road design and defect lawyer can help you successfully hold the government responsible.