According to a recent study published by the Road Information Program (a nonprofit group that evaluates highway data), Louisiana has the second highest auto fatality rate in the nation. In 2008, Louisiana had 2.02 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. Montana was the one state with more deaths, at 2.12 per 100 million miles. As noted in a recent editorial in the Louisiana Times-Picayune, “That translates into 4,782 people who lost their lives on Louisiana’s roadways from 2005 to 2008.”
Researchers found that many factors lead to the higher percentage of deaths, including poor road conditions. In fact, according to the study, 44 percent of major state and local roads are in “poor or mediocre” condition. Additionally, 13 percent of Louisiana’s bridges are structurally deficient and 16 percent don’t meet current design standards. Poor roads are those considered to have deficient lane width and lighting and lack barriers and paved shoulders. The study found that these factors played a role in as many as a third of the fatal or serious accidents.
While road conditions in Louisiana are bad, the state is working towards improvements and recently used $1.2 billion in state surplus money and $500 million in federal stimulus money to renovate highways and bridges. The article notes “safety projects such as the post and cable barriers on Interstate 12 in St. Tammany Parish and on Interstate 10 in St. James are examples of smart, life saving measures.”
How can Poor Road Conditions Cause an Accident?
There are several ways the design of a roadway can contribute to an accident. First, bad roads make it more difficult to see other drivers. They can also create dangerous obstacles or create increased susceptibility to weather. Signs that are inadequate or poorly placed can confuse drivers or make it harder to anticipate hazards. Lacking night time lighting, poorly visible road markings, and even the condition of the road surface itself can contribute to accidents.
Improperly maintained roads can also cause accidents. If debris is allowed to accumulate without being removed, potholes are not fixed, overgrown trees obstruct drivers’ line of site, snow is not removed after a storm, etc., the likelihood of accidents increases. Drivers should be aware of poor road conditions and adjust their behavior accordingly, just as they would while driving in adverse weather.
If the major cause of an accident is the improper design or maintenance of a roadway, injured parties may be able to collect damages from the state or locality responsible if they can prove negligence in the design or maintenance. These lawsuits are more complicated than a lawsuit against another driver, due to defenses of sovereign immunity that may be brought. Codified in the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, sovereign immunity protects the state from being sued in federal court. In Hans v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eleventh Amendment re-affirms that states have sovereign immunity and are generally immune from lawsuit in federal court without their consent.
Sovereign immunity laws vary from state to state and analysis of them can be very difficult. If you are considering bringing a claim against the state for poor roads, make sure you have an experienced attorney on your side.