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Driving a slippery slope


Given the amount of snowfall so far this winter in Central Alberta, municipalities should soon start bracing for the annual winter tradition of snow removal complaints from taxpayers.

Then when spring thaw sets in, municipalities can contend with complaints of potholes, ruts and general lousy driving conditions.

It seems to be a losing battle no matter what time of year for counties, villages, towns and cities trying to keep motorists happy. That’s particularly true given that some motorists seem to demand perfect driving conditions, regardless of the circumstances.

But a bit of caution to those complaining. This year might bring a whole new focus to the issue of maintaining roads, if the Supreme Court of Canada has its way. And it won’t come without a price, possibly a hefty one, for municipalities and taxpayers.

In August 2004, two Ontario teen sisters, admittedly speeding down a hilly, rural road near Oshawa with three other friends at night, met with calamity.

One of the sisters believed an oncoming vehicle was in their lane and swerved into the ditch, leaving she and her sister quadriplegic.

Shannon and Erica Deering sued the City of Oshawa and the Township of Scugog for $30 million, claiming the municipalities were negligent in maintaining Coates Road in a safe-driving condition — never mind that they were speeding.

The Supreme Court of Canada has now agreed with a lower court ruling that the city and township were at fault — and that could force municipalities across the country to spend millions on the upkeep of rarely-used roads or face similar lawsuits.

Taken to the extreme (and one should always figure in the extreme when it comes to lawsuits), this could be a serious financial blow to rural Canada.

And with the ever-expanding village, town and city limits encroaching into rural areas, the ruling also gives rise to the debate about who is responsible for the upkeep of what roads.

As well, old roads that were once used only by farmers are facing increased pressure from commuters.

Three months after the Ontario crash, Coates Road was painted with a centre line and the speed limit was reduced from 80 km/h to 50 km/h.

While one of the sisters was ejected from the vehicle, there was no mention in court about seatbelts being used.

In the end, Oshawa and the township were found two-thirds at fault, while the driver was deemed to be responsible for one-third of the cause because she was speeding.

There was also no mention in the ruling that she intentionally drove into the ditch.

The high court ruling sets a precedent that could lead to more lawsuits against municipalities in Canada.

While the settlement was kept confidential, the Deerings’ lawyer, Roger Oatley, said the ruling also states municipalities “have to take reasonable steps to assess the safety of old rural roads and do their best to bring them up to modern standards.”

That could be prohibitively expensive for many municipalities.

Larry Ryan, an insurance representative in Oshawa, said “the portion of the blame in this case could open the doors to future cases . . . ” where municipalities will bear at least some of the blame.

“We’re concerned about the increase in these claims,” Ryan said. “Municipal insurance premiums will increase, and ultimately the municipal property owners, the taxpayers, are going to bear the brunt of this.”

The ruling could also require the courts to determine a framework for deciding when a road is safe or not, it has been suggested.

At the end of this slippery road could be huge costs for everyone.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.

 
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