The next time you are driving along in your car, try to take a moment and glance at the support pillars of bridges and overpasses. If you are driving on a safely-built road, there should be a guardrail or concrete barrier between the roadway and the pillars.
This certainly isn't the type of scenery that most motorists are looking out for as they drive along, but thanks to an excellent story by Channel 5 here in Dallas, it's something that should be on people's minds.
According to their reporting, over the past several years, numerous Texans have been involved in fatal collisions with bridge and overpass supports, as well as collisions with large overhead sign supports, along our major highways. A large plurality of these crashes have occurred right here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Exposed Supports Along Highways Are Literally Killing People
For a clear illustration of the problem, one need look no further than one of the dangerous areas mentioned in Channel 5's story, the Azle Avenue overpass over I-820 in Lake Worth:
If you look to the left side of the image, you can see that the overpass support pillars are cordoned off from the highway by a concrete barrier on one side and guardrail on the other. However, if you peer off to the right side of the image, support pillars are visible, but there are no barriers between the pillars and traffic. Drivers who lose control, due to an accident, debris in the roadway, or inclement weather have nothing between their vehicle and the support pillars.
Federal guidelines suggest that barriers should be placed between the highway and pillars when supports are within 30 feet of a highway lane, or 16 feet of an on-ramp. According to those contacted by reporters, these guidelines are mere suggestions, without legal force and each site is evaluated on a case by case basis.
Of course, even federal guidelines are found wanting when confronted with the realities of how cars actually travel on a highway. A car traveling at 65 mph traverses 95 feet every second. This means that if the supports are 90 feet from the roadway, or three times as far as those mentioned in federal guidelines, a car traveling at highway speeds will still reach the support in less than a second in a crash. That same vehicle would also still be traveling at a tremendous speed at the time of an impact with the concrete pillars.
Since these pillars are designed to support the weight of the road and any vehicles traveling on the overpass, they are particularly rigid. These pillars are among the most rigid, least forgiving objects a vehicle can run into, which is why they are generally separated from the roadway by barriers and guardrails. This rigidity makes these accidents particularly deadly for those unfortunate enough to collide with a bridge or overpass support.
Sadly, most of these deaths are entirely preventable with proper barriers and guardrails. Even more appalling is that certain locations, such as the one pictured in Lake Worth have had multiple fatal accidents over the past few years, fatal accidents, which most likely would have been prevented if the road were properly constructed with safety features such as guardrails and barriers.
The Lake Worth site is just one of hundreds around the state where serious or fatal accidents have occurred because of unsafe highways.
To their credit, TxDOT says that they have been evaluating potentially dangerous sites around the state and erecting barriers as needed. They claim that they lack the resources in their budget to fix all of these problems immediately.
What Remedy Does the Law Provide Victims?
TxDOT would not comment on specific allegations, because in many instances they are facing litigation as a result of their failure to install adequate safety features around bridge and overpass supports, as well as certain overhead sign posts.
The reason for these lawsuits is that the government has a duty to design and build safe roadways. We know from experience that barriers and guardrails are invaluable safety devices, which reduce the severity of vehicle impacts and allow more motorists to survive accidents, while sustaining less severe injuries. Failing this duty gives plaintiffs a general negligence cause of action against whichever government is responsible for the construction and maintenance of a particular road.
The accidents and deaths at the Azle Avenue overpass are particularly egregious because they seem to indicate conscious indifference by government officials. As the sheriff mentions in the report, he has seen numerous fatal accidents on the right side of the roadway where their are no barriers. These accidents go back as far as 2008. During that same time, there has never been a fatal accident on the left side of the highway, where safety barriers have been erected.
It could be sheer coincidence that multiple people were killed on the side of the road without barriers, while not were killed on the side with barriers, but that is highly unlikely.
While some may see lawsuits for highway defects as folks trying to "cash in" on a family member's tragedy, the truth is that no one is truly "cashing in" on these accidents. Since roads are designed, built, and maintained by the government, any claims for road defects are limited by the Texas Tort Claims Act, which caps the amount of damages that can be recovered in a lawsuit against the government.
Liability for municipalities is limited to $250,000 per person and capped at $500,000 per incident. This means that if an individual dies due to a lack of safety barriers, the most their surviving claimants can hope to recover is $250,000. I cannot think of a single person who would trade a loved one for $250,000 and feel like they were "cashing in." Similarly, were a family of 3 to die due to the lack of safety barriers, their claimants would only be able to receive, at most, $500,000, due to the incident cap.
This is not to scoff at the amount of money available to victims, just to point out that it is far less than available to plaintiffs in many other wrongful death cases. The real reason to pursue these claims isn't monetary, but moral.
The goal of most families who pursue these types of lawsuits is to spur action, so that what happened to their loved one doesn't happen to others. For whatever reason, those in charge of building our highways have seen fit to create hundreds of less than safe areas on our roads. The only way to get to them to change this behavior is to impose a cost on their poor decisions.
TxDOT claims that it cannot remedy all of these dangerous spots, due to a lack of resources. Theoretically, if no one puts any pressure on the agency, they could use this claim until the end of time. In this scenario the roads would not be fixed and people would continue to suffer injuries and deaths unnecessarily. What these types of cases due is impose a cost on that inaction.
In many instances, it is highly likely that surviving family members never even considered that an unsafe road condition, like a pillar without a barrier or guardrail led to their loved one's death. In such cases, the survivors most likely chalked their loved one's death up to the a tragic accident. This let the state government off the hook and the dangerous condition persisted until someone else's loved one came along, had an accident at the same spot, and lost their life.
The result is a cycle of indifference, because there is no cost to the state in allowing the dangerous condition to persist. Heck, even after a credible news agency informed TxDOT of the problem, their response was at best limited, due to budgetary constraints. Raising the cost of ignoring the problem and holding negligent government agencies accountable, not only gets justice for the families of those killed by unsafe highways, but sees to it that the problem is corrected sooner, rather than later.