Risk Management Articles

Winter Road Maintenance in BC: Managing the Risks of Slippery Roads

This time of year, winter road maintenance is a significant concern for many of the MIABC’s members. While motor vehicle accidents are not the most frequent claims the MIABC receives, they are certainly among the most serious. The damages in these cases can be significant, with a few catastrophic cases resulting in awards over $10 million. Given the potentially tragic consequences of winter accidents, all members should review their risk management practices as they relate to winter road maintenance. 

The Need for a Policy

A winter road maintenance policy is a member’s first line of defence. A policy serves two main purposes. First, it supports the safety of the community by setting out a reasoned, consistent procedure with respect to winter road maintenance. Second, in the event of an accident leading to a lawsuit, a policy will protect the member from liability, provided the policy represents a bona fide exercise of discretion and the member can establish it acted reasonably in following it.

The Elements of a Policy

Most winter road maintenance policies feature three broad elements, which are tailored to the precise needs, circumstances and resources of the member.

First, policies typically contain a trigger for road maintenance, such as a minimum level of snowfall. Sometimes there is more than one trigger; for example, a “minor storm” may prompt a different level of service than a “major storm”.

Second, policies usually classify streets and roads according to levels of priority. In most policies, major roads, steep hills, bus routes and streets surrounding schools, hospitals and elderly care facilities must be attended to first.

Third, most policies contain standards, such as attending to certain areas within a certain period of time, or maintaining snow at a maximum depth. Whatever the standard, it is of the utmost importance that it be achievable. Members should review their policies on a regular basis to ensure they have the resources to meet the standard they set for themselves.

For members with questions about their policy, the MIABC’s Member Services Department is in the process of developing a policy audit service. Under this program, members can request a detailed review of their policies with a view to identifying best practices.

Operational Issues: Following the Policy

While a well-written policy is a local government’s first defence against road maintenance claims, no policy is useful unless it is reasonably followed. These cases provide examples of liability where a contractor or municipality failed to follow its policy:

• A municipality was held liable for failing to meet its policy standard of plowing and/or salting a road every two hours. The failure occurred as a result of unanticipated weather conditions and two equipment breakdowns. Though the circumstances were unusual, the municipality was still at fault for failing to respond reasonably to those circumstances (Belanger v. Regional Municipality of Sudbury).

• A road contractor was found negligent for deciding to prioritize hills and curves rather than following the procedure set out in its contract, which required it to give equal priority to all parts of the roadway (Brooks v. Billabong Road & Bridge Maintenance Inc.) 

• A road contractor was found at fault for failing to recognize the signs of dropping temperature and in failing to comply with listed priorities, salting lower priority roads in favour of the main road (Benoit v. Farrell Estate).

• A municipality was held liable when its snowplow operator cleared the road once in the morning but failed to attend for the rest of the day, contrary to protocol (Kelly v. Perth (County)).

The Importance of Documentation

Following a bona fide policy will not protect a local government from liability unless it can be established through admissible evidence. Since trials are usually held long after the accident and memories fade, careful and detailed documentation is crucial.

The installation of a GPS fleet-management system on your local government’s snow removal vehicles can be an excellent means of tracking and documenting road maintenance efforts. In a typical system, the data generated by the GPS devices is stored on web-based software that can be accessed at a later date. For more information on fleet management systems, consult the Spring 2016 issue of MIABC Risk Management Tidbits.

Even if your system is more low-tech, measures such as repeated employee education and spot checks of completed forms can assist in ensuring a strong documentation system. 

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