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Published 27 junio 2023
NFU Mutual has issued a warning to those driving on rural roads as we approach the season of increased agricultural activity and heavier leisure traffic in country areas.
Jade Devlin, NFU Mutual's rural road safety specialist, urged motorists and cyclists to be patient, saying: “Agricultural vehicles are generally large, wide and slow, which can tempt road users to overtake, but it’s vital that you remain patient and only overtake when it’s safe to do so – when you can see a clear road ahead, there are no field openings, and you have space to pass...”
Given the warning of the danger of driving on rural roads, here is a reminder from DAC Beachcroft of the laws and duties of driving on country lanes. There is a duty on the driver to observe ordinary care or skill towards persons using the highway whom they could reasonable foresee as likely to be affected by his negligent act and below we look at how this duty has been applied in a rural context.
One factor often considered when assessing whether that duty has been breached is the Highway Code. Rule 154 states “Take extra care on country roads and reduce your speed at approaches to bends, which can be sharper than they appear, and at junctions and turnings, which may be partially hidden. Be prepared for pedestrians, horse riders, cyclists, slow-moving farm vehicles or mud on the road surface. Make sure you can stop within the distance you can see to be clear. You should also reduce your speed where country roads enter villages.” This advice for added care on country roads is reflected in the case law that has developed in this area.
In Macklin v Baird  CLY 3269, the claimant motorcyclist had been riding along a trunk road when he collided with a tractor pulling a trailer as it emerged onto that road. One of the factors that the court took into account when holding the defendant tractor driver not liable, in addition to the claimant’s excess speed, was that, knowing the area, the claimant was aware of the presence of agricultural vehicles. Another case in which excess speed was a significant factor was that of Buswell v Symes Queen's Bench Division  EWHC 1379 (QB). The defendant tractor driver was held to be negligent for having blocked a road over a hill with a tractor. However, the claimant motorcyclist was held to be two-thirds to blame for the crash as he had driven much too fast over a blind summit.
In Irwin v Stevenson  EWCA Civ 359 the Court of Appeal set aside a finding of negligence that the trial judge had made against a tractor driver on the basis that they had no reason to anticipate that a motorbike would come from behind in a double-overtaking manoeuvre while he was turning right and that the bike would fail to see that he was indicating to turn. The appeal court, which noted that defendant had done all that could reasonably expected of them having the tractor’s lights on, a “prominent orange flashing light” on the cab roof and undertaken such checks for traffic as was appropriate, ruled that the sole cause of the accident was the failure of the claimant to see the defendant which they had ample opportunity to do.
Hames v Ferguson  EWCA Civ 1268 involved the consequences of two cars (driven by the two defendants) driving in convoy at excess speed. On rounding a bend the first defendant collided with the hay trailer of a tractor which was turning into a field injuring the claimant, a back seat passenger in the first defendant’s vehicle. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s finding that the first and second defendants were 60% and 40% respectively responsible for the claimant’s injuries.
A further example of the courts understanding the needs of driving on country roads is the case of Whiteford v Kubas  EWCA Civ 1017. The Court of Appeal ruled that the recorder had erred in imposing what they considered to be an unacceptably high standard of care on a lorry driver who’s vehicle had collided with a motorcycle ridden by the claimant. The accident had occurred on a narrow country lane and the Court of Appeal held that the defendant could not properly be criticised for taking a course which kept him away from the edge of the road but slightly over the centre white line on a bend, particularly where the motorcyclist had admitted fault in driving too close to the centre line himself. The effects of failing to drive in an appropriate way on country roads was also considered in the earlier decision in Barry v Pugh  EWHC 2555 (QB) in which the claimant motorcyclist had collided with the rear mudguard of a horse trailer towed by the vehicle driven by the defendant.
The claimant accepted he had been negligent in attempting to get past the trailer but alleged that the defendant had also been negligent as she was possibly still moving at the point of impact and should have stopped sooner than she did. The claimant also alleged that the trailer swung out into his path as the defendant pulled on to the verge. The High Court held that the defendant had braked and stopped or was in the process of stopping at the point of impact and had pulled over on to the verge as far as possible taking all necessary steps to avoid a collision. The defendant had been faced with a motorcyclist who was going far too fast at the point that she saw him and nothing in her actions could be regarded as negligent: the defendant’s decision to move across to the verge had avoided a head on collision.
Not all accidents on country roads are the result of collisions between vehicles. In the case of Matthews v Taylor (25 January 1995) LEXIS the defendant was a sheep farmer who, with assistance from his son, two farm workers and a couple of sheep dogs were herding about 300 sheep along a country lane. The claimant drove over the crest of the brow of a hill, saw the stationary or slow moving vehicles ahead of him, lost control and crashed into a wall and then an oncoming vehicle. Just before the accident the defendant's son had been at the brow of the hill to warning traffic of the sheep ahead and eventually decided that the danger to oncoming traffic had passed and left his post. The trial judge found for the claimant with a 40% deduction for contributory negligence. On appeal it was determined that the trial judge had erred in their findings and that there should have been ample time for the claimant to safely negotiate the situation. The claimant had been driving too fast and lost control in the "agony of the moment". Lord Justice Russell took the view that the defendant had done all that could reasonably be expected of him, his son remaining in position until all ordinary and to be anticipated circumstances had resolved themselves and the vehicles held up by the sheep had moved sufficiently far down the road that they no longer presented a hazard.
It is often pointed out, quite rightly, that liability issues in road traffic accidents are determined on the specific facts of a case but nevertheless the cases discussed above show that the courts are in tune with the realities of driving on rural roads and the added risks and hazards that are associated with it.
It is right to warn drivers of the added risks of rural driving when traffic on the roads are exacerbated by both an increase in agricultural activity and the heightened volumes of holidaymakers in popular rural areas, a situation only added to be the increased popularity of “staycations”.
Driving in a rural environment brings with it a unique set of features which, while everyday matters for those who live and work there, can give rise to unexpected risks and dangers for those who are accustomed solely to urban driving. Initiatives such as that of NFU Mutual which raise driver awareness and vigilance and reduce the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities on rural roads are to be welcomed and applauded.
For more information or advice, please contact a member of our Motor Injury Team.
+44 (0)163 365 7878
+44 (0) 163 365 7891
+44 (0)117 918 2072
Sarah Ramadan, Emma Fuller, Martin Holmes