By their very name, utility poles are useful objects. In addition to the primary function of carrying electrical wires and communications-related cables, they often play host to streetlights, traffic lights, cellular antennas, trolley wires, and a variety of signs. Utility poles are important, but we know they can also prove dangerous and can cause particularly severe injuries and an increased risk of death.
An article in Northwest Florida Daily News detailed a Sunday night accident involving a Fort Walton Beach man and included a utility pole collision. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, 27-year-old Daryl Lee Stevens was travelling southbound on Lewis Taylor Boulevard when, at approximately 10:18 P.M., the 1997 BMW he was driving veered off the road. The car travelled onto the shoulder and then headed southwest before colliding with two small poles, a utility pole, and two vehicles parked in the lot of FWB Auto Brokers. Stevens was transported to Fort Walton Medical Center with serious injuries. His vehicle incurred about $10,000 in damages.
With more than 88 million utility poles in the U.S., it may not be surprising that only trees are involved in more fatal fixed-object crashes. Given this threat, "A Guide for Reducing Collisions Involving Utility Poles" (the "Guide", released in 2004) was one element of a highway safety project undertaken by representatives from both state and federal groups. The Guide reports that there were 1,008 fatal utility poles crashes in 2002.
Fatalities occurred in about 1% of the reported utility pole accidents, making the total figure around 100,800 utility pole crashes. Approximately 40% of utility pole crashes studied involved some form of injury, with 7% of these injuries deemed incapacitating. The Guide notes that around one-quarter of utility pole crashes happen in adverse weather. Further, about 50% of such incidents occur in full daylight and 25% happen in lit nighttime conditions.
An important note: The studies only classify an accident as a utility pole crash when it is a fixed-object crash involving a vehicle departing the travel lanes, travelling onto the side of the road, and striking a pole. The crash must be the "first harmful event," a focus that fits with typical crash classification schemes including that used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The figures do not include other accidents where hitting a utility pole is a secondary event, even if the collision is more severe than the initial event.
In addition to reviewing pole crash statistics, the Guide proposes ways to reduce the number and severity of fatal pole crashes. Broad objectives proposed involve:
Beyond engineering approaches, the authors also recommended more general safety measures, such as enforcing speed limits more actively and advocating for seatbelt usage.
While the Guide focuses on accidents where the utility pole collision was deemed the "first harmful event," it seems obvious that drivers typically do not drive into utility poles on purpose; something happens first. The nature of this initial event will generally determine whether the victim of a utility pole crash (including cases where the pole collision occurs later in a chain of events) has a civil injury claim.
If another driver's negligence caused the victim to veer off-road and into the pole, there may be a personal injury claim. If a defective tire blew and sent the vehicle into the pole, there may be a product liability claim. If a road maintenance issue caused the crash, a suit against a municipality may be appropriate. Similar scenarios could give rise to a civil wrongful death suit if they claim the life of a relative. These are only some examples.
As usual, the exact claim depends on the facts. If you've been the victim of a utility pole crash and you believe someone else is to blame, call to discuss how the law applies to your case and how we can help you get money damages from those at fault.