Small signs, poorly lit signs, improperly positioned signs, and other issues can cause drivers to miss the signs they need to follow to avoid an accident. Whether the sign is on a rural highway, an urban street, or in a suburban neighborhood, it is a recipe for disaster. When poor signage causes an accident, the government entities responsible for installing and maintaining these signs can be held accountable for their negligence.

Causes of Motor Vehicle Accidents

The majority of motor vehicle accidents are the result of a combination of factors. Speeding, drinking while driving, drowsy driving, distracted driving, etc. are all inherently dangerous behaviors that can lead to an accident. There are also external factors such as road conditions, weather conditions, road construction, wildlife, and lighting that are common contributing factors. When any combination of these factors are present, the risk of an accident increases exponentially.

Road signs also play a role and can contribute to causing motor vehicle accidents in Nevada. This includes signs that are “blown over,” signs that are obscured by overgrown foliage, signs that are too small to read, and signs that are not properly illuminated. It also includes signs that are stolen or vandalized that government entities don’t replace or repair. When drivers can’t see the sign, they can’t reduce their speed to take a dangerous curve, aren’t alerted to the possible presence of wildlife, and aren’t warned of changes to road conditions, road construction, and other hazards. In the 1970s, it was determined that approximately 40% of all accidents involved problems with signs and other highway system failures.  

Sign Type, Size, and Color

There is a significant amount of science that goes into the design, construction, and placement of road signs. Each element of a road sign is intended to enhance the sign’s visibility, durability, and recognition. That’s why stop signs are red octagons, speed signs are white squares, and warning signs are bright yellow with black lettering. The size, color, and shape of every road sign is mandated by a long list of requirements. 

However, that doesn’t mean signs are flawless. Manufacturing errors, installation errors, and maintenance errors can diminish the durability of the sign. Poor construction techniques and the use of deficient materials can weaken a sign. These factors can combine to create a situation where a sign will simply blow over where drivers can’t see it. In fact, in these instances, the sign manufacturer may also be liable for contributing to a motor vehicle accident. Similarly, any 3rd party contracted by the state or local government can be held liable for failing to maintain damaged signs or replace missing signs.

Too Many Signs Cause Distractions

Just as too few signs can cause accidents, too many signs are also a common problem. When too many signs are present in a given location, it distracts the attention of motorists. When speed signs, warning signs, directional signals, etc. are placed in close proximity to one another, it can cause informational overload.

When signs aren’t clear, it creates a dangerous situation where drivers must guess the safe and correct action, such as merging at a certain point, decelerating at a certain rate, etc. In such situations, it is very easy for a driver to overcorrect or not react swiftly enough to changing road conditions.

Studies in the 1990’s in Pennsylvania and Tennessee showed that between 12-18% of road signs were superfluous and not required for safe navigation. Further, there are many unauthorized, privately placed signs located throughout communities that government entities have a responsibility to remove that many do not. 

Sovereign Immunity

Governments are granted a significant amount of sovereign immunity for their decisions and actions of employees. For example, they cannot be held liable for discretionary acts such as deciding not to place a stoplight at a specific intersection, or deciding not to install barriers at potentially dangerous corners. 

However, sovereign immunity is not absolute and courts across the country have ruled that government entities can be held liable for ministerial acts that cause harm. Discretionary function immunity grants governments immunity from economic and political decisions. However, it does not grant them immunity from violations of established safety mandates. 

Thus, when state or city entities negligently maintain traffic signs, fail to replace damaged or missing signs, or fail to address any known problems with signs mandated by city ordinances, state, or federal law, they are not immune from the legal liability stemming from those decisions. Indeed, the courts have repeatedly ruled that disregarding mandates does not qualify as a discretionary function that would grant the government entity immunity from litigation. As such, when a missing sign, obscured sign, or damaged sign contributes to causing a crash, the parties involved in the crash can file tort claims against those responsible.