Question Your Cops: How to excerise due care on Tahoe’s slick winter roads
October 24, 2011
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. – This week’s question, from M. Harlen: “A resident friend of mine received a citation last winter. The citation was for Failing to Exercise Due Care. She was driving her SUV on the snow-covered roadway on Mt. Rose Highway. She lost control of the car due to poor traction and hit another car. How do the officers determine when a driver is going to receive a citation in poor weather or on a slick road? Do they take into account that the road is snow-covered or the area has fog or ice? Just wondering, but I will still try to keep driving safely this winter.”
Answer: This is a question I receive fairly often. Due to the circumstance of accidents, it is sometimes difficult for troopers to give thorough explanations of the law. Besides, most people involved in the accident are more concerned with other things, like injuries to themselves or others, damage to property, or they are just in shock from the event. So questions about the citation usually don’t arise until the stress of the moment subsides.
At any rate, your question is timely, considering that winter weather will be here soon. There are many laws that govern the way one should drive. Several laws even have subsections that give further requirements to drivers in the event of inclement driving conditions. For now, I will cover the Due Care law.
The Due Care law is, in fact, one of the most common accident violations, especially for those driving in winter weather. It says that “[t]he fact that the speed of the vehicle is lower than the prescribed limits does not relieve a driver from the duty to decrease speed … when special hazards exist … or by reason of weather or other highway conditions, and speed must be decreased as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person, vehicle or other conveyance … and the duty of all persons to use due care.”
So what does this mean? It places the duty to decrease speed and use due care on the driver. Drivers are responsible to drive in such a way as to be able to avoid an accident.
Obviously, laws can’t be written (and I think we would not want them to be) to cover every possible situation that can occur on the highway. This law says you need to use common sense (or due care) when conditions on the roadway warrant it.
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So, for example, the speed limit is 50 mph on the western side of the Mt. Rose Highway. A winter storm has dumped snow on the roadway for two hours and you need to drive to Reno. How fast should you drive? Well, how deep is the snow? Are the roads being plowed? What kind of car do you drive? Is it four-wheel drive? Do you have chains on? What type of tires do you have on it? How much experience do you have driving in the snow? I could go on, but you get the point. One person may safely drive at 10 miles below the speed limit, while another may need to drive 30 below to be safe.
Now back to your questions. You said your friend “lost control of her car due to poor traction and hit another car.” You painted a picture of a driver who failed to decrease speed to avoid an accident. We cite the person who is at fault, which is not always as easy as blaming the striking vehicle. We understand at times the driver of the vehicle who collides into another vehicle may not be at fault. That is where the hours of training and experience in accident investigation comes to play for a state trooper.
Your second question asks if we take the weather and road condition into account. Yes. At any accident scene, we take everything we see into account to discover what happened. This may be hard to believe, but sometimes people lie to us. So we take great care to look at all the evidence to discover what happened. Then we are able to assign fault and issue a citation. But in no way does the weather or roadway condition relieve a driver from the duty to use due care.
I hope this helps. Keep sending us your questions.
– Matthew Kaplan is a trooper with Nevada Highway Patrol.