The Use of Traffic Control Devices to Help Establish Liability

The Use of Traffic Control Devices to Help Establish Liability

If you have been in a car accident, and have either filed an insurance claim or that insurance dispute has gone on to an adversary proceeding (such as trial, mediation or arbitration), the parties at hand will be focused on determining and establishing liability. Essentially, the party (or party’s insurance company) that is responsible for paying for the damages sustained – including property damage, medical bills, loss of wages, pain, and suffering, etc. – is the one most at fault, and so it is not unusual for parties to spend a lot of time pointing fingers at each other.

Fault, or liability, in car accidents, is determined by assessing: (1) whether the parties had a duty of care (to the other driver as well as all other occupants of the roadway); (2) whether the parties breached their duties of care to the other in their behavior during the accident; (3) whether the breach of that duty caused the accident; (4) whether there were actual damages caused by the breach of that duty.

As you can imagine, a lot of traffic accidents happen quickly and as parties are going about their regular business of commuting or transferring from one place to another. Often, therefore, there were no witnesses to the accident or the witnesses that are available only saw the accident from one angle or after the crash – and therefore have an incomplete story of what caused the accident. Further, it is likely that the two (or more) parties involved in the crash have conflicting accounts of what happened and what caused the accident, and likely be accusing each other of falsifying their account of what happened in order to avoid liability.

As such, courts look at a number of different sources of evidence to determine liability in a tort case stemming from a traffic accident. Because their determinations need to hold up as valid in court if an insurance dispute gets escalated to a civil action, insurance adjusters often look to the same sources of evidence when determining liability. These sources can include witness accounts, police reports, accident reconstruction reports and expert testimony, as well as traffic control devices.

How can traffic control devices help establish liability? There are a number of possible ways. One is that the traffic control device – specifically, the timing or trigger for how the traffic control lights are programmed to change – can disqualify the account of one of the parties in the car accident. For example, in the event that two motorists who collided claim that they both had a green light, the traffic control device may provide answers to which party is telling the truth. Many traffic control devices are set on timers and, therefore, the sequence of the light changes can be calculated back quite accurately. As such, if one party said they were stopped for 30 seconds before they proceeded on a green light, but the traffic control device sequence showed that the light would have turned green after 15 seconds, the traffic control device would have effectively disqualified that portion of that party’s testimony.

Similarly, some traffic control devices are triggered to change when there is oncoming traffic. For example, certain traffic control devices are programmed to remain green for traffic on the primary incoming road until any vehicle approaching from the secondary (less used) roadway is detected. As such, if two individuals collided on an intersection governed by this type of traffic control device were traveling at 30 miles per hour at the time of the collision, clearly, neither one was waiting for a light to change. This particular traffic light’s programming would, therefore, show that the driver on the secondary roadway probably ran the red light. This is because the traffic light on the primary roadway would have been green as both cars approached, so the driver on the primary roadway would have had the right of way.

Further, certain traffic control devices have surveillance cameras and speedometers attached to them. This information, when obtainable and relevant, can certainly help determine which party breached duties of care by speeding or running red lights, etc.

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