Signal Spotlight: Traffic Signal Liability Considerations


Signal Spotlight: Traffic Signal Liability Considerations

Traffic signals are a vital component of Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure, providing efficient travel within towns and cities and throughout the state. Motorists rely on traffic signals to assign the right of way in a manner that allows for safe operations. I was asked to provide some information on liability considerations for municipalities relating to maintenance of signalized intersections. As this article is for informational purposes and I am not a legal expert, I encourage you to discuss the applicable statutes with your corporation counsel and draw your own conclusions. That being said, here are several topics that may be of interest to those who maintain and operate traffic signal systems:

Sovereign Immunity

According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, “The sovereign immunity refers to the fact that the government cannot be sued without its consent.”  The liability of political subdivisions in Connecticut is determined by the state legislature and generally outlined in Section 52-557n of the Connecticut General Statutes (CGS).

Defective Roads and Bridges

CGS 13a-149 states that “Any person injured in person or property by means of a defective road or bridge may recover damages from the party bound to keep it in repair.”  As traffic signals are generally considered part of the road infrastructure, malfunctioning traffic signals may fall under the scope of Section 13a-149.

What this means for those responsible for traffic signal maintenance and operations is that it is possible a judge may deem a municipality liable for injuries resulting from a traffic signal that is defective. According to Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary, defective is defined as “Incapable of fulfilling its function, due to an error or flaw.” One may argue that a structural failure of a span pole or the display of conflicting indications at an intersection could be considered a defect.

As a risk management practice, municipalities may consider maintaining records of engineering studies performed in determining whether a traffic signal is warranted, along with detailed records of resident requests for service, maintenance and repairs, and conflict monitor testing.

Town Roads Lying Within, Intersecting or Crossing State Highway Rights-of-Way

CGS 13a-99 discusses ownership, easement rights, and maintenance responsibilities at the intersection of town roads at state roads. Some town-owned traffic signals are located at these intersections and may fall under the requirements of the statute.

Dark Signals

The Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) has adopted the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (also known as the MUTCD) latest edition as part of its agency regulations establishing a uniform system of traffic control signs, devices, signals, and markings.

One specific issue relating to the MUTCD is the use of temporary stop signs at intersections where the signal is dark as a result of a power outage. The Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA) published a brief providing guidance on the MUTCD language regarding this subject, which concludes that:

Shall Not – does not allow for discretion and appears to be a ministerial directive not to place temporary traffic control devices when the power for the device fails, unless the device can be properly programed to be in accordance with MUTCD as above.

“…signal indication that will first be displayed to that approach upon restoration of power is a flashing red signal indication and that the portable STOP sign will be manually removed from view prior to stop-and-go operation of the traffic control signal.”

In addition to following the MUTCD, municipalities and local traffic authorities should use communications channels with the community on what the expectation is when a traffic sign is dark.

Do you have a traffic signal-related question? Would you like to share a signal project you’ve been working on? If so, email and your town may be featured in a future Signal Spotlight!

About Connecticut T2 Center

The Training & Technical Assistance Center at UCONN provides education and technical assistance to members of Connecticut's Transportation and Public Safety Community, including municipal public works directors, street and road maintenance superintendents and staff, city and town engineers, Connecticut Department of Transportation employees, transportation planners and law enforcement professionals serving as legal traffic authorities. We are Connecticut's LTAP Center
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