Fighting Dangerous Roads in Court

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

This March, at the Strong Towns Summit, we heard from Ashwat Narayanan, Director of Transportation Policy at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He and his organization fought an expensive and wasteful highway expansion project on the legal grounds that the traffic forecasts that were used to justify the project were flawed. (Watch a video of Narayanan's presentation to learn more.)

What about using the legal system to combat harmful transportation projects in a different way—by fighting dangerous stroads through law suits after car crashes? The obstacles to using this process are many, but it may still be one promising way to push for safer streets.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on a $9.5 million lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles after a fatal car crash:

Two years ago, 16-year-old Naomi Larsen had left the fire pits at the beach after midnight and was crossing Vista Del Mar with her friends when she was hit by the car, suffering injuries that led to her death weeks later.

In their suit, her parents, Stacey Larsen and Steven Potovsky, argued that the death of their daughter was a “foreseeable tragedy” because the city had failed to ensure safe ways for pedestrians to cross from the beach to their parked vehicles on the street. The highway was hazardous to pedestrians, but the city did nothing to fix the problem, the lawsuit alleged.

While the circumstances are deeply tragic, the outcome of this lawsuit initially seems promising: It got major media attention and will hopefully serve as encouragement for the city to create a safer environment for pedestrians. And yet, a search for similar lawsuits revealed few examples. Furthermore, according to the LA Times, the response from the Los Angeles government so far has been to erect temporary “No Parking” signs “so that beachgoers would not be crossing Vista Del Mar to reach their cars.” That’s a band-aid “solution” if ever there was one.

It’s important to note that a lawsuit of this kind, unless it specifically includes request for an action to be taken (and isn’t just suing for financial damages) will not be the thing that actually compels a city or state to change its road design. Rather, the ensuing public relations disaster and fear of another death or injury in the same place will be the impetus for a change in road design. That may be too much uncertainty to bank on.

What's more, there are three other central problems with the legal approach to solving dangerous road design.

First, it requires contending with many technicalities and government protections. For example, if a road complies with all the legally mandated standards—even though the standards may be inappropriate—we’d have a tough time fighting the people who designed and built that road in court. Additionally, sovereign immunity protects governments from many types of lawsuits. An essay published in the November 2016 issue of the California-based Plaintiff Magazine details the numerous technicalities that could preclude a lawsuit against a local government from succeeding. And here’s another article from a law firm discussing further challenges to suing the government. Overall, this type of lawsuit is anything but cut and dry.

Graphic by Matthias Leyrer

Graphic by Matthias Leyrer

The second problem with this approach to preventing dangerous road design is that one court case is only likely to make a difference in the municipality where it takes place. We’d need this sort of action all over the country, or at a minimum, we’d need these lawsuits to get national attention if we wanted more than just a few towns to rethink their road designs.

The final and biggest problem with using legal action to create safer streets is that, where large bureaucratic systems are involved, the response is likely to be just as clunky and overbearing as the policies that gave us wide and dangerous streets in the first place. Los Angeles’ “No Parking” signs as a way to solve a dangerous pedestrian crossing area are a perfect example of this. Speed limit postings and barriers are another. At Strong Towns, we’ve seen that the most powerful way to make streets safer is by making them narrower. It’s that simple. But given the precedent, I doubt that would be most municipalities’ response.

Yet, acknowledging all the challenges of fighting expensive and harmful road design in court, I still think this could be a worthwhile avenue on which to combat dangerous stroads in our towns. We need to approach the problem from as many levels and angles as possible—from speaking to our city engineers, to conducting traffic calming demonstrations, to getting the word out through news articles and publications (like Strong Towns) and yes, to challenging road design in court.

The best possible outcome from a lawsuit like this (or, more likely, a series of similar lawsuits) would be if it encourages a reexamination of core engineering standards and policies at all levels. If legal challenges held engineers accountable and pushed organizations like AASHTO and the ASCE to adjust their perspectives and policies on street design, we’d have a true transformation on our hands that would undoubtedly save lives and foster stronger towns.

(Top image source: jonathunder)

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