a prudent driver

700. Basic Standard of Care: A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, 2019

The term ‘prudent driver’ does not exist in law or case law for California, though it does for some other states. The concept is useful enough that I’d like to explore it here. The term is closely related to other concepts such as a ‘reasonable person’, ‘prudent man‘, ‘prudent person’, ‘duty of care’, and ‘standard of care’. The Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) document, excerpted above, is often referred to a ‘case law’, instructions for how to interpret legal codes, based on court findings. Many terms in California Vehicle Code are left intentionally fuzzy, but case law removes much of, but not all of, this fuzziness. In civil law, which is what this document covers, the three criteria for establishing liability are negligence, causation, and harm, meaning that the person acted in a negligent way, and harm was caused by the negligence.

Of the two issues most relevant to people walking, speeding and failure to yield are the most significant.

706. Basic Speed Law (Veh. Code, § 22350): A person must drive at a reasonable speed. Whether a particular speed is reasonable depends on the circumstances such as traffic, weather, visibility, and road conditions. Drivers must not drive so fast that they create a danger to people or property.

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, 2019

Section 706: Basic Speed Law (and sections 707 and 708), presents the idea that violation of the speed limit is not, per se, evidence of negligence on the part of the driver, but that the test is whether the speed was reasonable. In most European countries, violation of speed limits is negligence, but unfortunately that is not the case in the US. But the document does lay out pretty clearly that the driver is responsible for controlling their vehicle and anticipating the presence of other users on the roadway.

710. Duties of Care for Pedestrians and Drivers in Crosswalk (Veh. Code, § 21950): A driver of a vehicle must yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian who is crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. When approaching a pedestrian who is within any marked or unmarked crosswalk, a driver must use reasonable care and must reduce his or her speed or take any other action necessary to ensure the safety of the pedestrian.

A pedestrian must also use reasonable care for his or her own safety. A pedestrian may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard. A pedestrian also must not unnecessarily stop or delay traffic while in a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

The failure of a pedestrian to exercise reasonable care does not relieve a driver of a vehicle from the duty of exercising reasonable care for the safety of any pedestrian within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, 2019

Section 710 covers the failure to yield to pedestrians violation, CVC 21950. The case law does have some interesting quotes:

“While it is the duty of both the driver of a motor vehicle and a pedestrian, using a public roadway, to exercise ordinary care, that duty does not require necessarily the same amount of caution from each. The driver of a motor vehicle, when ordinarily careful, will be alertly conscious of the fact that he is in charge of a machine capable of projecting into serious consequences any negligence of his own. […]”

“It is undisputed that defendant did not yield the right of way to plaintiff. Such failure constitutes a violation of the statute and negligence as a matter of law in the absence of reasonable explanation for defendant’s conduct.”

To summarize, my interpretation of the judicial guidance is:

  1. Drivers must control the speed of their vehicle, no matter what the posted speed limit, in recognition that they must always be aware of other users of the roadway and take all reasonable precautions to ensure that crashes do not occur.
  2. Drivers must yield to pedestrians who are exercising reasonable care in crossing the street, and the pedestrian has a presumption of right-of-way in the absence of other evidence.

So, a prudent driver would not be negligent, and a negligent driver would not be prudent.

Next post, more about how a prudent driver behaves.

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