Traffic Control Devices

The Oregon Traffic Control Devices Committee (OTCDC) is an advisory group to the state, cities, and counties in Oregon regarding traffic management issues.  The committee meets to discuss policy, programs, and procedures as they affect state and local governments.  The OTCDC meets every other month to exchange thoughts, ideas and practices that will act as a source of guidance and advice for the future (regarding traffic related activities).

The need for the committee was based upon the following facts: (1) traffic control devices which are applicable to state highways do not necessarily apply to city and traffic control problems and; (2) the committee would provide a communication link between local government and the state on technical traffic issues.  In the meantime, established statutes and case-law decisions govern.

Therefore, in this section, we shall briefly examine eight interrelated issues about traffic control devices in Oregon.  These issues are: (1) the definition of a traffic control device; (2) the statutory structure of Oregon law governing traffic control devices; (3) their placement; (4) the failure to obey traffic control devices; (5) exceptions for failing to obey traffic signals; (6) examples of reasonable and unreasonable responses in emergency situations; (7) one-way traffic designations and; (8) the malfunctioning traffic lights due to the negligence of city employees.

Definitions in Law and Statute

Oregon’s traffic signs, signals, and pavement markings follow the national standards.  Signs often use easily recognized symbols or pictures, rather than words.  You must obey all official highway signs, signals, and markings—unless you see a police officer or a road worker redirecting traffic.

Each type of sign has a special color to help you recognize the sign at a glance.  In addition to the color, the shape of the traffic sign also helps you identify the sigh and what you must do to obey it.  In poor visibility conditions, such as heavy fog, you may be able to make out only the shape of the sign.  Therefore, it is important for drivers to know both the colors and shapes of highway signs.  The legal definitions are as follows:

(1) Any sign, signal, marking or device which is placed, operated, or erected by the authority granted under ORS 810.210 for the purpose of guiding, directing, warning, or regulating traffic; (2) Any device that remotely controls by electrical, electronic sound or light the operation of any vehicle that is identified in ORS 810.210; (3) Any stop sign that complies with specifications adopted under ORS 810.200 that is held or erected by a member of a highway maintenance or construction crew working in the highway.  ORS 810.200 defines uniform standards for traffic control devices; (4) ORS 811.260 describes appropriate driver responses to traffic control devices; (5) ORS 811.255 outlines four specific exceptions to the rule to heed a traffic control device; (6) ORS 811.260 contains a list of 12-devices and signals–along with a description of what a driver’s response should be to them.  You can also find them discussed in the Oregon Driver Manual.

Oregon Statutes Governing Traffic Control Devices

The key sections of Oregon’s statutory scheme for the governance of traffic control devices are: (1) ORS 810.210—Placement and control of traffic control devices; (2) ORS 810. 250—Use of traffic control device placement or legibility as evidence; (3) ORS 811.260—Appropriate driver responses to traffic control devices; (4) ORS 811.265—Driver failure to obey traffic control device; (5) ORS 811.270—Failure to obey one-way designation.

The Placement of Traffic Control Devices

The Oregon Transportation Commission is vested with exclusive jurisdiction over the installation at railroad-highway grade crossing of signs, traffic signals, gates, protective devices or any other device to warn or protect the public at a railroad-highway crossing.  The commission is granted exclusive authority under ORS 810.210 to determine the character or type of device to be used.  Further, all traffic control devices erected and used under ORS.810.210 shall conform to the specifications established under ORS 810.200—which specifies the uniform standards for traffic control devices.

The Failure to Obey Traffic Control Devices

ORS 811.265 makes it clear that: (1) A person commits the offense of driver failure to obey a traffic control device if the person drives a vehicle and does one of the following: (a) Fails to obey the directions of any traffic control device; (b) Fails to obey any specific traffic control device described in ORS 811.260 in the manner required by that section.  In this matter, there are some exceptions.

Exceptions for Failing to Obey Traffic Control Devices

ORS 811.265 outlines four exceptions to the rule: (1) Following the directions of a police officer; (2) Driving an emergency vehicle or ambulance in accordance with the privileges granted to those vehicles under ORS 820.300; (3) Properly executing a turn on a red light as authorized under 811.360—when a vehicle turn is permitted at a stop light; (4) Driving in a funeral procession led by a funeral lead vehicle or under the direction of the driver of a funeral escort vehicle.

Examples of Exceptions

There are two key cases which present legal exceptions for failing to obey traffic control devices.  One case involves acting reasonably or unreasonably in an emergency situation.  The other case involves the proper and/or improper position of a traffic control device.

Example #1:  What is Reasonable in an Emergency? — Oregon courts have held that the presence of an emergency does not change the standard of care.  Rather, the standard of care remains one of reasonable care under the circumstances.  So, if a driver acts unreasonably in the face of an emergency, he/she is negligent.  However, if he/she acts reasonably they are not negligent.  Therefore, it is important to remember that an emergency is simply one of the circumstances to consider in judging whether a driver behaved reasonably under the circumstances [Barnum v. Williams, 264 Ore. 71 (1972)].  In short, the violation of a motor vehicle statute creates a presumption of negligence.  Hence, a person who violates the statute has the burden of producing evidence that he/she was “acting reasonably.”  Without any such evidence, a person who violates the statute is negligent as a matter of law.

Example #2:  Location, Location, Location — The Proper Positioning of a Traffic Control Device:  ORS 810.250(1) begins by declaring that “a person shall not be convicted of” violating ORS 811.265 “if the device is not in the proper position” [ORS 810.250(1)].  It is a statute that describes an “affirmative defense” that a defendant must prove to prevail.  In State v. Boly, 210 Or App 132 (2006), the court held that the proper positioning of a traffic control device is not an element of the offense under this section, but it is a fact that the defendant/driver is entitled to challenge by means of an affirmative defense.  The improper positioning of a traffic control device can be used as a defense to the charge of negligence.  So, location, location, location is an important factor in deciding whether or not there has been a violation of the law.

One-Way Traffic Control Signals

ORS 811.270 states that: “A person who commits the offense of failure to obey a one-way designation if the person is operating a vehicle and the person proceeds upon a roadway designated for one-way traffic in a direction other than that indicated by a traffic control device.”  Yet, Oregon courts have also said that while the violation of a motor vehicle statute creates a presumption of negligence it is also possible for a driver to present evidence that they were acting reasonably—and were not negligent.  However, without evidence that the driver was acting reasonably under the circumstances, then that driver is negligent as a matter of law” [Barnum v. Williams, 264, Ore. 71, 79 (1972)].

Example:  The Reasonably Prudent Person that Violates a Statute:  The court in Barnum held that all courts and juries should look at the facts in deciding whether or not a party was “acting as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances.”  The Barnum court clearly stated that: “We so hold regardless of whether the circumstances do or do not include facts which the law regards as an emergency.”  In reaching this conclusion, the Barnum court addressed those situations in which one of the drivers wound up the wrong side of the road.  As far back as 1957, courts in Oregon have said that: “…the statute is not considered violated in instances when the driver, acting as a reasonably prudent person, turns to the left to avoid a collision with an approaching vehicle traveling in the wrong lane” [Gum, Adm. v. Wooge, 211 Or 149, 158, (1957)].

Malfunctioning Traffic Lights

A municipality may be held liable for a malfunctioning traffic light if a vehicle operator, after waiting a considerable time, proceeds against a malfunctioning red light and collides with another vehicle [Menke v. Bruce, 88 OR App, 107, 111-112 (1987)].  The opinion in Menke does not, however, stand for the proposition that a driver may ignore a malfunctioning traffic light.  The facts in Menke revealed that an employee of the municipality failed to throw a switch that would have moved the signal from its “locked” condition and put it in a “four-way flash” mode.