Rights to Use Highways

Highways belong to the public[i].  The public is entitled to uninterrupted, unimpeded, and unobstructed use of every portion and part of highways, and this includes every inch or foot of such highways[ii].

However, the right to drive a vehicle on highways does not give rise to the status of a fundamental right[iii].  Driving an automobile on public highways is a privilege, and not a right.  It is a privilege because it is a qualified right enjoyed by a class.  The activity is limited to a certain class of individuals, generally those over the statutory age, and who have passed a driver’s license examination[iv].  Further, this privilege of operating a motor vehicle on highways may be revoked for noncompliance with statutory regulations[v].

The public should use highways in an ordinary manner.  Persons should operate or drive a motor vehicle or other vehicle on a public highway at such rate of speed as not to endanger the life or limb of any person, or the safety of any property[vi].

A state has the police power to promulgate regulations calculated to promote safety in the use of highways[vii].

Statutes provide that any person operating or driving a motor or other vehicle on the public highway should operate or drive the same in a careful and prudent manner, and at a rate of speed that is reasonable and proper, having regard to the traffic and use of the highway[viii].

Statutes further require that state highway departments place conspicuous signs upon every public or private road merging into or crossing an express highway, warning the vehicles that they are approaching such highway and that they are required to come to a full and complete stop before entering or crossing the same[ix].  Highway safety is not merely a legitimate state interest; it is a compelling one[x].

At common law, there is a public right to operate a motor bus on the public streets for the transportation of passengers for hire[xi].  Further, a person has a right under the federal constitution to travel and transport property upon highways by motor vehicle.  However, s/he has no right to make the highway his/her place of business by using them as common carrier for hire[xii].

It is essential for the proper use of highways and to secure adequate service to the public, that the business of motor transportation for hire should be regulated and those who avail themselves of the regulations and observe them must be protected from unfair competition.

Thus, the use of public highways for purposes of private gain is special and extraordinary, and generally may be restrained, prohibited, or conditioned as legislative power may prescribe, without violating any provisions of state or federal constitution.

Under some jurisdictions, a farm tractor may be used on a highway if it is used solely for agricultural, farming, or manufacturing purposes[xiii].

Pedestrians have a right to travel anywhere upon a public highway.  Also, a pedestrian does not have a legal duty to look back or watch behind to see whether s/he is in danger of being struck or run down by any vehicle approaching him/her from the rear[xiv].

A pedestrian when using public highways, may assume that the driver of an automobile approaching the former from the rear will so operate his/her car as to avoid colliding with, or injuring him/her, and that failure to anticipate omission of such care does not render him/her negligent[xv].

However, pedestrians, who travel on highways by whatsoever means or mode, should, for their own safety, exercise reasonable or the due amount of care .

If pedestrians fail to exercise such care and thereby contribute proximately to the cause of any injury or if such failure is the sole cause of the damage they have suffered, then they have no ground for a complaint.

The degree of care exacted of both users of the highway is the same.  The driver of a motor vehicle, a dangerous instrumentality capable of inflicting fatal injuries, is charged with a greater amount of care than the pedestrian, in order that s/he may be bound to the same standard of ordinary care. 

Ordinary care must be in proportion to the danger to be avoided and the consequences that might reasonably be anticipated from the neglect[xvi].

[i] Slusher v. Safety Coach Transit Co., 229 Ky. 731 (Ky. 1929).

[ii] State ex rel. State Highway Com. v. Johns, 507 S.W.2d 75, 78 (Mo. Ct. App. 1974).

[iii] People v. Peterson, 734 P.2d 118 (Colo. 1987).

[iv] Spokane v. Port, 43 Wn. App. 273 (Wash. Ct. App. 1986).

[v] State v. Folda, 267 Mont. 523 (Mont. 1994).

[vi] Hatzakorzian v. Rucker-Fuller Desk Co., 197 Cal. 82 (Cal. 1925).

[vii] Satterlee v. State, 289 Ark. 450 (Ark. 1986).

[viii] Hatzakorzian v. Rucker-Fuller Desk Co., 197 Cal. 82 (Cal. 1925).

[ix] Townsend v. State Highway Dep’t, 153 S.E. 572 (S.C. 1930).

[x] Heying v. State, 515 N.E.2d 1125 (Ind. Ct. App. 1987).

[xi] St. Paul v. Twin City Motor Bus Co., 187 Minn. 212 (Minn. 1932).

[xii] Slusher v. Safety Coach Transit Co., 229 Ky. 731 (Ky. 1929).

[xiii] Ryan v. Pa. Life Ins. Co., 123 S.W.3d 142 (Ky. 2003).

[xiv] Hatzakorzian v. Rucker-Fuller Desk Co., 197 Cal. 82 (Cal. 1925).

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Rotz v. New York, 143 A.D.2d 301 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 1988).

Inside Rights to Use Highways