American streets are typically designed for fast automobile traffic. As a result, those streets are often dangerous for pedestrians.
In part, the anti-pedestrian design of American streets is a result of transportation planners' perceptions of American tort law. In negligent street design cases, courts and juries sometimes rely upon guidelines set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), a national association of government transportation officials. Because AASHTO's street-design rules have historically favored wide streets built to accommodate high-speed traffic, planners sometimes assume that in order to avoid liability, they must do the same.
The purpose of this Article is to disprove that theory and instead show that under American tort law, transportation planners can make streets safer and more comfortable for pedestrians without risking additional liability exposure. This is so for two reasons. First, the policy decisions of local governments that allow more pedestrian-friendly street design are likely protected from tort liability under the “discretionary immunity” doctrine because the doctrine exempts policy-related decisions from tort liability. Transportation planners may therefore disregard AASHTO guidelines without fear of tort liability if their deviation is based on a deliberate policy decision to make streets more pedestrian-friendly. Second, the most recent AASHTO manual gives government officials significant discretion to create more pedestrian-friendly streets. Accordingly, transportation planners are free to follow AASHTO guidelines and still make streets more pedestrian-friendly without the same risk of tort liability.
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