Malfunctioning Traffic Lights
Who is Liable for an Accident Caused by Malfunctioning Traffic Signal Lights?
A malfunctioning traffic signal light can wreak havoc on normal intersection traffic flow. Intersection collisions are often difficult enough to sort out when everything is working properly due to varying stories of drivers. However, determining who is liable for an automobile accident caused by malfunctioning traffic signal lights can be even more difficult due to the confusion regarding a driver’s duties when traffic lights malfunction. When traffic signals blackout or malfunction, the individual drivers and/or pedestrians navigating the intersection may have liability and, in some cases, the government entity (City, County or State) may be liable.
Common Causes of Traffic Signal Light Malfunctions
There are many reasons why signal lights malfunction. Sometimes they malfunction and show incorrect or emergency signals due to the failure, other times they have a complete traffic signal blackout—where the lights are completely off. Common causes of signal light malfunction include:
- Lightning causing power surges
- High winds downing electrical lines that supply the signals
- Wear and tear of equipment over time
- Accidents resulting in signal light poles and control boxes being struck and damaged
- Power outages
- Vandals or criminals tampering with traffic control devices
Sometimes the cause is unknown. However, regardless of the cause of the signal malfunction, the Rules of the Road dictate how drivers should respond to the situation.
What to do When Traffic Control Devices Are on But Malfunctioning
The general rule with traffic signal malfunction is that the drivers are still required to follow the rules of the road. If the light malfunction results in flashing red or yellow lights, the driver is charged with knowing that they:
- MUST stop for a flashing red light before entering the intersection and yield to cross traffic that does not stop, and;
- MAY proceed with caution only if safe to do so on a yellow light.
The Texas Transportation Code Sec. 544.008. sets this fort as follows:
FLASHING SIGNALS. (a) The operator of a vehicle facing a flashing red signal shall stop at a clearly marked stop line. In the absence of a stop line, the operator shall stop before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection. In the absence of a crosswalk, the operator shall stop at the place nearest the intersecting roadway where the operator has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway. The right to proceed is subject to the rules applicable after stopping at a stop sign.
(b) The operator of a vehicle facing a flashing yellow signal may proceed through an intersection or past the signal only with caution.
(c) This section does not apply at a railroad crossing.
If you cannot see what color the light is for the cross traffic, you should assume they have right of way until you see them bring their vehicle to a complete stop at the intersection. Assuming otherwise could cause a collision that both you and the other driver may share liability for.
When all drivers have a red flashing light, this is treated as a four-way stop. (discussed more below) You must stop and proceed safely only when you have right of way to do so and it is safe to do so.
What to do In the Event of Total Traffic Signal Blackout
When the signal is completely off or not working at all, this is called a traffic signal blackout. In the event of a traffic signal blackout, you treat the intersection as a four-way stop. When there is a four-way stop, all drivers are required to bring their vehicle to a complete stop before the intersection. Failure of any driver to do so is likely to result in a broadside collision. If there is a crosswalk, you should stop before the crosswalk. Otherwise, you should stop at any clearly marked line designating the stopping line for the intersection. In the absence of both, you should stop as close as practice without entering or blocking any part of the intersection where you can see oncoming traffic. See: Texas Transportation Code 544.010.
Who Has Right of Way at a Four-Way Stop?
The general rule is that whomever arrives and stops at the intersection first has right of way. If two or more vehicles arrive at the intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the left must yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right. If by chance four vehicles arrive at the same time, you had better only proceed if you are sure everyone is going to wait on you.
Liability of the Drivers for Failure to Follow Rules of the Road
The Rules of the Road are created to prevent accidents. While violation of some very obvious Rules of the Road such as “not running red lights” can be the basis of negligence per se claims, not all such violations are clear and easy to follow when traffic signals are malfunctioning. An accident caused by malfunctioning traffic signal lights often results in different people giving different versions of what happened such as both people claiming the other had the red light or duty to stop. This is what is commonly known as a “red light swearing match.”
If you can prove which driver failed to follow the able Rules of the Road, then the offending driver may be held liable. However, proving that your story is right and theirs is wrong often requires an independent eye-witness to corroborate your story. Even when you have a witness and can prove the other car did not yield, this may not alleviate you of responsibility since you have a duty to keep a proper lookout at all times. Thus, when in doubt, yield the intersection to avoid being in a difficult liability situation.
Liability of the Government for Malfunctioning Traffic Signal Lights
When a accident caused by malfunctioning traffic signal lights happens, often people want to blame the government entity responsible for the light maintenance for the accident. Proving that a government entity is liable is very difficult. Just because they put the signal up, does not mean they are liable when it malfunctions.
Governmental entities in Texas and many other states enjoy immunity from certain liabilities. A governmental entity is only liable for a malfunction traffic signal that they maintain when they are aware of the malfunction and they fail to take reasonable steps to correct the malfunction. For example, if a report is made to a city traffic department that a signal light is out and they fail to timely dispatch a crew to fix the issue, then they are liable. However, if they promptly dispatch a repair crew and someone gets in a wreck before the crew can get there, the city would not be liable. Thus, blaming a malfunctioning traffic signal for causing an accident is generally not good for a plaintiff in a case.
What to Do/ Not Do When You are in an Accident Caused by a Malfunctioning Traffic Control Device
When you are in a collision involving a malfunctioning traffic signal, it is important that you get the cause of the malfunction investigated and that you make it clear to the office that you followed the rules and the other car did not. Do not give statements to any insurance adjusters who might try to trick you into saying harmful things to your case. When you do talk to the office, do not blame the signal failure. If both drivers follow the Rules of the Road, no accident will happen. You can expect the police report to have some errors if you do not clarify that you did what the law required of you and they did not. You can also expect the other driver to tell a different story.
Paul Cannon has practiced personal injury trial law since 1995. He is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law (2005). He has earned recognition as a Super Lawyer by Thompson Reuters in 2017 & 2018, and as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association in 2017. He is a Shareholder, trial lawyer and online marketing manager at Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. His legal writings have been published by the Texas Bar Journal, Business.com, Lawyer.com HG Legal Resources, Lawfirms.com, and others. He has been asked to give education talks and media interviews on dog bite law.