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Standard of care applied to Maryland drivers upon malfunction of a traffic signal at a controlled intersection

Question Presented: What standard of care is owed by a Maryland driver upon entrance into a controlled intersection, where the traffic signal is blank due to malfunction?

Short Answer: Maryland statutes do not specifically address the standard of care applicable where traffic signals at a controlled intersection fail to operate. Drivers of motor vehicles in Maryland always owe a duty of reasonable care, and whether a driver has exercised reasonable care in a particular circumstance is generally a question of fact for the jury. A driver’s right to assume he has the right of way is an important factor in determining whether the standard for reasonable care is met. Should Maryland’s “boulevard rule” apply to the facts, the “favored driver” is presumed to have the right of way.

Analysis:

In Maryland, drivers of motor vehicles always owe a duty of reasonable, ordinary care. Kaffl v. Moran, 233 Md. 473 (1964). The caution required to meet this standard will vary depending upon the circumstances, but the standard remains the same. Heffner v. Admiral Taxi Ser., Inc., 196 Md. 465.

Approaching an intersection, the amount of caution constituting “ordinary care” is elevated because of the increased potential for collision with other vehicles. Heffner, 196 Md. 465. Right of way at an intersection is assigned in accordance with how the intersection is controlled and how the intersecting roads are characterized. At an uncontrolled intersection where neither road is designated as a “through highway”, a vehicle has the right of way over any other vehicle approaching from the left and must yield to any vehicle approaching from the right. Md. Code Ann., Transportation, §21-401; Valcourt v. Ross, 201 Md. 17 (1952). At controlled intersections, traffic signals, stop signs, or yield signs will indicate the right of way. Md. Code Ann., Transportation, §21-403.

At an intersection involving a “through highway”, right of way is determined in accordance with Maryland’s “boulevard rule”, codified in Md. Code Ann., Transportation §21-403. A “through highway” is defined as a “highway or part of a highway (1) on which vehicular traffic is given the right of way; and (2) at the entrances to which vehicular traffic from intersecting highways is required by law to yield the right of way to vehicles on that highway or part of a highway, in obedience to either a stop sign or yield sign placed as provided in the Maryland Vehicle Law.” Md. Code Ann., Transportation §21-101. A “highway” is any “road” or “street”. Md. Code Ann., Transportation §8-101.

Pursuant to the “boulevard rule”, the driver traveling on a through highway is deemed the “favored driver” and the driver traveling on the intersecting highway is deemed the “unfavored driver”. The unfavored driver must stop before entering the through highway and afford the favored driver right of way. The favored driver may safely assume that the unfavored driver will yield, and may proceed through the intersection without stopping. Though the favored driver has the right of way, he is not absolved of his duty to drive lawfully and to proceed through the intersection with reasonable care. MPJI-Cv 18:2 Boulevard Rule. Favored drivers may assume that unfavored drivers will obey the law, but they may not ignore an obvious danger. Dean v. Redmiles, 280 Md. 137 (1977). The “boulevard rule” reflects a policy goal of expediting traffic on boulevards or through highways, so that the larger or more traveled of two intersecting highways will be considered favored. Id
Under the plain language of the Maryland statute, the “boulevard rule” is applicable to intersections where traffic crossing a through highway is faced with a stop sign or yield sign. Maryland case law, however, has broadened the application of the rule to scenarios where the intersection is controlled by a malfunctioning traffic signal. In Hickory Transfer Co. v. Nezbed, a favored driver traveling on a through highway saw that the traffic signal governing an approaching intersection was blank. Hickory, 202 Md. 253 (1953). Assuming that he had the right of way, the favored driver proceeded through the intersection without stopping. Id., at 256. Traffic traveling on the intersecting on the unfavored highway faced a green traffic signal, and a collision thus ensued. Id. The court held that the favored driver “innocently thought himself entitled to the right of way, and in this he was misled by the appearances created by the defective signal device.” Id., at 261. The court thus “[perceived] no evidence of negligence” on the part of the favored driver. Id.

Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals more recently applied the boulevard rule in Miller v. Montgomery County, 64 Md. App. 202 (1985). In Miller, a favored driver traveling north on a through highway approached an intersection and proceeded through when he saw no traffic signal governing northbound traffic. Miller, 64 Md. App. 202. It was dark and the favored driver was unfamiliar with the area, so he did not notice a blank traffic light controlled the intersection. Id. at 206. An unfavored driver traveling east on the intersecting highway proceeded through the intersection pursuant to a green light, and the two vehicles collided. Id. The favored driver testified that he saw no traffic light as he approached the intersection, but that just before the collision, he did notice a red left turn signal to his left. Id. The court upheld the rule of HickoryTransfer Co. v. Nezbed, that “while a driver on a boulevard is not relieved of the duty of exercising care…in determining what is due care his right to assume that he has the right of way is an important factor” and that “[it is not] evidence of negligence that [the favored driver] failed to observe an unlighted signal and to anticipate the possibility that the same signal which is dark as he faces it may at the same time be inviting traffic on the side street to cross in his path.” Id. at 218 citing Hickory at 261.

The court distinguished the facts of Miller from Hickory because there existed a question of fact as to whether the driver knew or should have known that the intersection was controlled, having seen a red left turn signal. Id., at 218. The court held that whether or not the driver had notice of the approaching controlled intersection was a decisive factor in determining whether he had exercised due care in assuming that he had the right of way. Id., at 217 The court held this question properly for the jury. Id.

The ruling of Hickory was criticized by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, though it has not been overturned in Maryland. In a case based on similar facts, the DC court held Maryland’s “boulevard rule” inapplicable. The DC Court reasoned that the holding of the Maryland Court of Appeals in Hickory was outdated, such that “the Maryland Court of Appeals would find the boulevard inapplicable were that court presented today with [similar facts].” Sawle v. Allstate Insurance Company, 2006 WL 1519581 (D.C.Super). The DC court noted that in Hickory, the Maryland Court of Appeals relied partly upon the fact that in 1957, many traffic lights operated part-time. Id., at 3. When not operating, traffic lights were blank and traffic traversing the through highway would yield, such that a favored driver proceeding without stopping did so in the exercise of reasonable care. Id. The DC court noted that contemporary traffic lights operate constantly, so that an ordinarily prudent driver would stop before proceeding through an intersection controlled by a malfunctioning traffic light, rather than assuming other traffic will yield, because “it simply cannot be argued that a driver who sees a darkened traffic light…as [he] approaches a significant intersection…has no cause to expect that another vehicle might cross [his] path” Id.

Conclusion:

The applicable standard of care upon confronting a malfunctioning traffic signal is reasonable care. Whether the standard is met is a question of fact for the jury. The right to assume right of way is an important factor to be considered in the jury’s determination. Should Maryland’s “boulevard rule” apply, Maryland case law has held that the favored driver is presumed to have the right of way. Therefore, assuming the applicability of the “boulevard rule” and unless there is a question of fact as to whether the favored driver knew or should have known that a traffic signal malfunction could result in cross-traffic, proceeding through the intersection without stopping constitutes reasonable care.

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