Traffic Light – Approach in Assessing Liability

This post will provide the approach to consider when liability is in dispute and the main issue is the color of the traffic light at an intersection.

To start, there were some very interesting facts presented in this decision which were outlined by statistics gathered by ICBC and stats by Expert Evidence:

  1. The 5 year annual average number of car accidents in BC 270,000;
  2. 740 accidents per day;
  3. 1.5 to 3 seconds to process what we see and be able to react to a traffic incident;
  4. With a 3 second warning sign, a potential crash can be avoided

In this recent decision Quiat v. Armstrong, 2017 BCSC 2155, the issue of liability is explored in a collision that occurred at an intersection.

The discussion must focus on the testimony of the drivers, and a review of the statements of the witnesses. It is almost always the case that contradictory statements will be made, and therefore, a careful analysis is required in order to determine fault involving an intersection and the color of the traffic light.

The collision occurred at the intersection at Dumfries and East 33rd Avenue, which happens to be a t-intersection.  Traffic on Dumfries is controlled by a Stop Sign (and offers pedestrians the option to control the light running North/South for crossing purposes), while traffic on East 33rd is controlled by a traffic light at the intersection.

Both parties were travelling to work, the collision having occurred at approximately 7:45 am.

This post will highlight the approach taken in determining liability in a scenario where the “light” at the intersection is in question.

Both drivers have commenced their own actions claiming the other party is liable. Armstrong was driving Westbound on E. 33rd.  She was in a hurry as she did not want to be late for work. Just prior to the intersection, she was held up by a truck unloading at a construction site, and eventually she passed it as she approached the intersection.  She states the light was green and then turned yellow as she crossed the intersection.

Quiat was on Dumfries. He had made a stop at the stop sign and states there was no traffic entering the intersection on 33rd Avenue.  He proceeded in the intersection intending to turn left onto E. 33rd, when his vehicle was struck while about to make his left turn.  His vehicle was struck at the passenger door side.

The main issue to analyze is the color of the traffic light on E. 33rd at the time of the collision, based on the testimony provided by both drivers and all the witnesses and placement of vehicles pre-collision.

The Court comments that where liability is in issue, the engineering opinions are often invaluable. Considerations to retain such experts should be seriously considered in matters involving liability disputes.

Starting Point for Assessment in Matters Where One Street is Controlled by a Stop Sign

The Court states that the starting point for assessing negligence for a collision occurring at an intersection controlled by traffic lights is to ascertain the color of the lights in relation to the position of the vehicles pre-collision;

In this case, one must also consider the issue of immediate hazard as Quiat’s direction was not controlled by a traffic light, but rather, a stop sign.

Review of the Statutues and Common Law

  1. 174 of the Motor Vehicle Act R.S.B.C. c.318 [the ‘MVA’], where there is traffic coming from opposite directions are not entirely on point and that s. 175(1) applies: see Salaam v. Abramovic, 2010 BCCA 212.

[87]         Section 186 of the MVA places a duty on drivers to stop at stop signs:

186 Except when a peace officer directs otherwise, if there is a stop sign at an intersection, a driver of a vehicle must stop

(a)        at the marked stop line, if any,

(b)        before entering the marked crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or

(c)        when there is neither a marked crosswalk nor a stop line, before entering the intersection, at the point nearest the intersecting highway from which the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting highway.

[88]         A driver intending to enter a highway from a side road is governed by s. 175 of the MVA after stopping in accordance with s. 186:

175 (1) If a vehicle that is about to enter a through highway has stopped in compliance with section 186,

(a)        the driver of the vehicle must yield the right of way to traffic that has entered the intersection on the through highway or is approaching so closely on it that it constitutes an immediate hazard, and

(b)        having yielded, the driver may proceed with caution.

(2) If a vehicle is entering a through highway in compliance with subsection (1), traffic approaching the intersection on the highway must yield the right of way to the entering vehicle while it is proceeding into or across the highway.

[89]         The Court of Appeal in Miller v. Dent, 2014 BCCA 234 at para. 16, said the starting point for assessing negligence for a collision occurring at an intersection controlled by traffic lights is to ascertain the color of the lights in relation to the positions of the vehicles pre-collision.

Immediate Hazard

Immediate hazard was defined by Davey J.A. in Keen v. Stene (1964), [1964] B.C.J No. 130, 44 DLR (2d) 350 at 359:

[A]n approaching car is an immediate hazard if the circumstances are such as to require the driver of that car to take some sudden or violent action to avoid threat of a collision if the servient driver fails to yield the right-of-way…

Salaam at para. 18-21:

Common Law Duty of Care

[18]      While the statutory provisions provide guidelines for assessing fault in motor vehicle accident cases, they do not, alone, provide a complete legal framework.

[19]      In Carich v. Cook (1992), 90 D.L.R. (4th) 322 at 326, 9 B.C.A.C. 112, this Court considered liability for an accident that occurred when a vehicle turning left on a four-lane road was in collision with a vehicle proceeding in the opposite direction, in the outside lane. While the Court was considering what is now s. 174 of the Motor Vehicle Act rather than s. 175, it is my view that the opinion expressed by Lambert J.A. has some relevance to this case:

The question as a driver turns left is whether there is any vehicle in any approaching lanes that constitutes an immediate hazard. If there is, the turn should not be made. If there is not, then the turn can be made and of course, care should be taken throughout the turn and as each new lane is entered to make sure that the situation as it was assessed when the turn started has not changed in the meantime. But that care is more a matter of the ordinary duty of a reasonably careful driver and not a duty, in my view, imposed specifically by s. 176 [now s. 174] which, in my view, states the situation when the turn is commenced. Once the turn is commenced both of the drivers in that situation, the one who is doing a left turn and the ones that are approaching straight ahead in a situation where a vehicle could turn in front of them, all must keep a proper look-out.

[20]      To the extent that there is a need to refer to a section of the Motor Vehicle Act for this proposition, one can turn to s. 144, which requires drivers to drive with “due care and attention” and to have “reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway”.

[21]      In the end, a court must determine whether, and to what extent, each of the players in an accident met their common law duties of care to other users of the road. In making that determination, a court will be informed by the rules of the road, but those rules do not eliminate the need to consider the reasonableness of the actions of the parties. This is both because the rules of the road cannot comprehensively cover all possible scenarios, and because users of the road are expected to exercise reasonable care, even when others have failed to respect their right of way. While s. 175 of the Motor Vehicle Act and other rules of the road are important in determining whether the standard of care was met, they are not the exclusive measures of that standard.


In conclusion, it was determined based on placement of Armstrong’s vehicle just prior to the collision, being held up by construction, including the testimony of witnesses, her vehicle was speeding to enter the intersection as she did not want to be late for work. The Court concluded that she was deemed to have run a red light, and therefore she was held primarily responsible for this collision, although there was an apportionment as Quiat entered the intersection and did not keep an adequate lookout based on the test for Immediate Hazard.

I find the larger portion of fault lies on Ms. Armstrong for going through a red light. The smaller portion lies on Mr. Quiat for his failure to keep an adequate lookout. After consideration of all the circumstances I apportion fault 75% to Ms. Armstrong and 25% to Mr. Quiat.

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