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If You Run Over Something in the Road--Keep It to Yourself

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A reader recently learned a surprising lesson: If you run over debris on the freeway and damage your car, you have broken the law. So think twice about filing a claim with your insurance company.

“I have no idea what it was,” the reader wrote. “It was dark and not visible until a split second before impact. I’m guessing it was some sort of pallet or something off a truck, because I ran into and over it with a thump.”

When he requested reimbursement from his insurance company, however, the answer shocked him. The company would pay for the damage, he was told, but the accident would result in a mark against his driving record which ultimately would boost his premium payments by more than the cost of the damage.

“It would have been cheaper in the long run to fix it myself and not report it,” he correctly surmised. “I think this sort of thing should fall under ‘act of God.’ It doesn’t seem fair or right to hold drivers responsible for hitting objects on roads.”

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California drivers are held responsible for such accidents, however, under a section of the Vehicle Code called the basic speed law. The law requires drivers to maintain speeds that presumably allow them to go around fixed objects in the road.

“Once an object is stable on the roadway surface, it becomes part of the roadway and something you have to maneuver around,” Rich Obregon, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said in explaining the law. “If you come upon an object in the roadway, you’re supposed to be able to react: You have to drive at a speed that’s safe, which includes negotiating your vehicle around an object that’s on the highway.

“Personally, what I think is that it’s unfortunate, because some of those objects are just too hard to see.”

So would he actually cite someone for hitting something that seemed unavoidable?

“If I was going by the book, yes,” Obregon said. In reality, though, maybe not. “I’m a very compassionate man,” he said, “and if somebody just lost a set of tires or took out their oil pan because of a tail pipe or large rock on the roadway” he probably would forgo the ticket, he said.

Layna Browdy, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, said insurance companies routinely take a different view.

“Technically, it’s a collision and you have broken a California law,” she said. Her advice: “Think twice before you file a claim. Sometimes, it’s just better to learn to live with the dent.”

*

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Doug Stiegman is furious with the city of Irvine.

A businessman who lives in Laguna Niguel and commutes daily to his office in Newport Beach, he recently was delayed 15 minutes by a lane closure on Moulton Parkway near Lake Forest Drive in Irvine. Stiegman was especially incensed, he said, after a call to the city manager’s office revealed that the lane would remain closed until the end of the month so that the Irvine Co. could install a water line for its development of the Irvine Spectrum area.

“What really infuriates me is that this is not being done for the good of the public whatsoever, but for the profit of the Irvine Co.,” Stiegman said. “Why do profits for the company come before the safety of people traveling the roads?”

But city officials say the public interest is being served.

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“The Irvine Co. will profit, yes, but the citizens of Irvine will benefit from the sales tax,” City manager Paul Brady said. “It’s a positive cash flow that will benefit the city’s coffers.”

City Atty. Joel D. Kuperberg said it’s not unusual for cities to close lanes in deference to developers.

“Fundamentally,” he said, “every person has a right to use his or her property subject to governmental protections. A public agency can’t very well tell a private property owner, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to prevent you from building a house on your property,’ and then effectively prevent him from parking a dump truck on his street because people will have to drive around it. We’re not talking about closing a road permanently here; we’re talking about the reasonable attempt of someone to bring materials across the road.”

* Street Smart appears Mondays in The Times Orange County Edition. Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about traffic, commuting and what makes it difficult to get around in Orange County. Include simple sketches if helpful. Letters may be published in upcoming columns. Please write to David Haldane, c/o Street Smart, The Times Orange County, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626, fax him at 966-7711, or e-mail him at David.Haldane @latimes.com. Include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers. Letters may be edited, and no anonymous letters will be accepted.

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