Intersections; Lights and Liabilities

Motor vehicle drivers when approaching an intersection must, generally, take reasonable care to control their vehicle so as to avoid a collision.

The general principle at common law, when two vehicles approach an intersection, is that the drivers will control the vehicle in such a way so as to avoid a collision. To do this, each driver is under an obligation to take reasonable care in avoiding an impact.[i] An interesting issue is a driver’s duty at intersections controlled by traffic lights, where statutory vehicles, such as ambulances, police vehicles and the like, potentially frustrate the ability of motor vehicle drivers to act reasonably when entering and leaving intersections.

In Victoria, the obligations of road users at intersections with traffic lights are set out in the Road Safety Road Rules.[ii] The Rules indicate that if a driver has entered an intersection, stopped and the lights have changed to amber or red, the driver must leave the intersection as soon as the driver can do so safely.”[iii] The general view at common law, in relation to collisions at intersections controlled by traffic lights, is that the driver entering an intersection with traffic lights in their favour is entitled to precedence and has close to an unqualified right to proceed.[iv] However, drivers are not absolved from their common law duty to keep a proper lookout.[v] Similarly, a driver who has a green light, still has a duty to traffic already lawfully in the intersection prior to the change of the lights, and which may still be crossing. In those circumstances, the driver has an obligation not to enter the intersection until it is safe to do so.[vi]

The alternative has been illustrated in Blight v Warman[vii], where a police vehicle collided with a taxi that had already entered the intersection with a green light but had not seen the police vehicle. The driver of the police vehicle and taxi were both held liable. Responsibility of each driver of the taxi and police vehicle were apportioned equally.[viii] Consequently, should a driver enter an intersection, and then give way to a statutory vehicle, prima facie, that driver may leave the intersection with precedence. However, the driver is subject to was it safe and was is reasonable. Any findings of contributory negligence or proportionate liability will be determined on the facts. These elements appear to be consistent at both legislation and common law.

Given that the current Rules[ix] do not provide an explanation or guidance on what situation would arise where it would be safe to leave an intersection, the common law also does not necessarily qualify the issue either. However, what we can draw from the above, is:

  1. Courts will generally afford precedence to the vehicle entering an intersection on a green light;
  2. in circumstances, where that vehicle has had to give way to a statutory vehicle, that vehicle must leave the intersection. The limitation on this, is that it must be safe to do so;
  3. drivers must offer heightened vigilance in controlling their respective vehicles to ensure that collisions are avoided;
  4. when working out whether a party is liable, notwithstanding any precedence or right of way, solicitors must be particularly mindful of the facts of the circumstances to determine whether there is any apportionment of liability;
  5. a breach of the rules or regulations is not necessarily conclusive of the breach of duty owed by one driver to another, especially if that duty is frustrated in response to a statutory vehicle entering an intersection; and
  6. finally, the common law duty to act reasonably is paramount.

[i] Sibley v Kais (1967) 118 CLR 424, [427]; [1968] ALR 158. [159]-[160].

[ii] Road Safety Road Rules 2009 (Vic).

[iii] Ibid, s 61(5).

[iv] Shepherd v Zilm (1976) 14 SASR 257

[v] Ibid; Henderson v Hassel (1986) 3 MVR 359; BC8600898 per Wood J.

[vi] Radburn v Kemp [1971] 2 AII ER 249; [1972] 1WLP 1502.

[vii] [1964] SASR 163.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Road Safety Road Rules 2009 (Vic).

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