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Slippery issue on track

Andrew Heasley
April 29, 2004

Suing a tram company after a collision has implications here, writes Andrew Heasley.

An appeals court in England has given a motorist the go-ahead to sue over injuries sustained when his car skidded on wet tram tracks and hit a pole.

The British case has sent shivers through the private tram company and the council concerned, which could face damages running into millions of dollars, and the case could serve as a warning to authorities here.

The case involved 42-year-old Bill Roe, who lost control of his car after it skidded on wet tram tracks in Sheffield, England, in May 1995. The court heard the tram tracks stood higher, by millimetres, than the road surface.

A witness saw Mr Roe’s car “kick” to the left and then veer to the right before hitting a tram power pylon.

After sustaining brain damage in the smash, he sued for 1 million ($A2.4 million) and, in December 2001, a UK court exonerated him of blame and ruled the tram company was liable for compensation.

The tram company appealed and now, more than two years later, the appeals court has dismissed the tram company’s case.

“(Research) indicated a potential for vehicles losing control following contact with tram rails at shallow angles, even at moderate speed,” the presiding judge said.

The original court now has to determine whether the local council is liable, too.
Melbourne, home of one of the world’s largest tram networks, has more than 300 kilometres of track.

VicRoads said statistics on car crashes on tram tracks could be misleading because many of the roads where cars and trams ran together were heavily trafficked, where more crashes could be expected.

But the RACV, citing official statistics, said in the six years to December 2002, there were 425 accidents involving trams that caused personal injury. More than half of these (241) involved a car and a tram colliding.

Of these collisions, almost 20 percent involved a car executing a U-turn in front of a tram, 15 percent were rear-end collisions while 10 percent were sideswipes.

RACV public policy manager Ken Ogden said the figures showed there needed to be greater segregation of cars and trams.

Last month, the State Government announced it was introducing laws to make road authorities legally accountable for the condition of the roads.

Currently, a road authority is liable only if work hasn’t been done properly. VicRoads will assume from councils the responsibility for 11,000 kilometres of main roads.

“Motorists have been forced to pay the full cost of repairs, and the Transport Accident Commission’s scheme has been the only avenue of compensation available to road users involved in accidents resulting in serious injury or death,” Mr Batchelor said.

Yarra Trams chief executive Hubert Guyot said his company had an extensive track-cleaning maintenance regimen to minimise slippery rails, and any suggestion of liability reinforced the arguments in favour of his vision to see trams and cars segregated.

Sheffield Council has since installed high-friction material either side of the tracks to help cars and motorbikes maintain traction.

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