When sub-zero conditions hit the road network, it is simply not feasible to grit or salt every yard of every highway and byway. However, in a rare decision, the High Court found that, in failing to respond to a clearly heralded risk of ice, a local authority bore two thirds of the blame for an accident which left a young man gravely injured.
The man was a passenger in a car driven by a friend when it skidded on a country road and hit a tree. His injuries were so severe that he had no recollection of the accident. The driver's motor insurers paid him an agreed sum in compensation for his injuries but sought a contribution to their outlay from the local authority. The council was alleged to have breached its duty under Section 41(1A) of the Highways Act 1980 to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that temperatures had fallen to well below zero prior to the accident. A water leak had resulted in the formation of black ice and, on the same night, a total of five collisions or skidding incidents had been reported on the three-mile stretch of road where the accident happened. The council had refused two police requests to grit or salt the road on the basis that it was not a priority route and that, at the relevant times, no serious or fatal accidents had occurred.
The Court acknowledged that the council had a detailed plan in place for dealing with icy conditions and that gritting every part of the public highways in its area on every occasion when temperatures were likely to fall below zero was not reasonably practicable. The policy allowed for ad hoc gritting of non-priority routes, but only in exceptional circumstances.
In ruling that the council failed in its duty, the Court found that it had taken too narrow an approach to the question of what constituted exceptional circumstances. Two phone calls from the police reporting treacherous conditions and two separate accidents on the same stretch of road should have alerted the council to an easily identifiable risk of injury. The manpower and resources that would have been required in sending out a truck to spot-grit the road were not particularly significant.
The Court found that the driver was one third responsible for the accident in driving at a speed which was too fast for the prevailing conditions. The presence of ice on the road was foreseeable and a warning light on his dashboard indicated a need to drive cautiously. The council, however, bore the lion's share of the blame for what happened and was ordered to contribute two thirds of the accident victim's compensation.