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Highway authorities responsibility

11 October 2007

Now that our glorious summer has passed(!), thoughts will inevitably turn to winter. It therefore seems appropriate to comment upon a recent County Court decision reminding us of a highway authoritys duty to clear snow and ice from highways.

In Rhiannon Pace v Swansea City and County Councils [2007] the Court reiterated the existing stance confirmed in the earlier case of Goodes v East Sussex County Council [2000].

In Pace a road traffic accident had been caused by ice on the road although the highway authority had a statutory defence under the Highways Act 1980, as it had in place, an adequate policy for salting the roads which was being implemented at the time of the accident.

The highway authority contended that the road in question had been salted in the early hours of the morning in accordance with a reasonable and proper system. The judge found that the accident was caused by the claimants own failure to control her car properly. However, the judge also found that the highway authority had an adequate and proper policy for treating roads.

The court reiterated that it was impossible for a highway authority to eliminate all risks of ice forming on the roads. It could place limitless amounts of salt on the road which would effectively increase levels of protection, but that would be undesirable in terms of economic and environmental cost.

Under Section 41 Highways Act, the highways authority has a duty to maintain highways maintainable at public expense. Section 41 (1A) goes on to say that "highway authorities are under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice".

Whilst this case is a first instance decision, it does confirm that the courts stance when dealing with these claims remains the same. In Pace there was no doubt that ice had formed and that this in part caused the accident. Therefore highway authorities can defend these types of claims if they can show an operational plan to treat highways in inclement weather, in accordance with accepted practices, using sufficient quantities of salt to address the foreseeable risks.

This is a very good, common sense judgment that should provide some comfort to highway authorities with a proper system in place.

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