By Alex Mellor, California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (JPIA) Risk Manager

With the growing threat of wildfires and extreme weather events, California utilities are implementing response plans that include protecting customers and communities by shutting off power. This is known as a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS). As these outages may last several days, it is important for member agencies who own and control signalized intersections to have a plan for actions to be taken before, during, and after a power shut off.

Generally, there seem to be two schools of thought on the subject: 1) do not place temporary stop signs at intersections with inoperable traffic signals and rely on the agency’s statutory immunity from liability if an accident were to occur, or 2) place temporary stop signs to try to prevent accidents.

Some statutes and case law indicate that public agencies are immune from liability if they do not place temporary stop signs at intersections with inoperable traffic signals. California Vehicle Code Section 21800 (d) (1) places the responsibility on the driver to stop at intersections with inoperable traffic signals and proceed with caution when it is safe to do so. In addition, relevant case law has shown that public agencies enjoy immunity (under Government Code Section 830.4) from liability in situations where power has been interrupted and no temporary stop signs have been placed (Chowdury v. City of Los Angeles, 38 Cal.App.4th 1187).

Generally, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (JPIA) recommends avoiding the placement of temporary stop signs at inoperable traffic signals. However, some members may choose to place temporary stop signs to prevent accidents from occurring. If your agency decides to do so, the following guidelines should be considered:

  1. Develop and implement a written policy for how to deal with this issue and consult the agency attorney in its drafting. The policy should specifically state that the adopted procedures are the product of the member’s discretion and desire to prevent accidents from occurring.
  2. Temporary stop signs should be arranged in such a way that it is clear to the motorist when and where to stop. Indiscriminate placing of stop signs has the potential to confuse motorists and expose the agency to liability.
  3. In placing temporary stop signs, it is important that a conflict is not created when the power is restored. To avoid this conflict, proper procedures should be in place to manually place the signals in “flashing red” mode prior to placing the temporary signs. When the power is restored, signals will flash red until they are reset at the time the temporary stop signs are removed. If the signals cannot be set to flashing red, temporary stop signs should not be placed.
  4. If the agency chooses to place temporary stop signs but does not have enough signs to address every intersection, the agency should prioritize its intersections to determine which ones present the greatest risk to drivers. This analysis should consider traffic volumes as well as the speed of vehicles that might enter the intersection because drivers are unaware of their responsibility to stop.

California JPIA member agencies with questions or concerns regarding this issue may contact their regional Risk Managers for further information.

Providing innovative risk management solutions for its public agency partners for more than 40 years, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (California JPIA) is one of the largest municipal self-insurance pools in the state, with more than 100 member cities and other governmental agencies.  Members actively participate in shaping the organization to provide important coverage for their operations. The California JPIA provides innovative risk management solutions through a comprehensive portfolio of programs and services, including liability, workers’ compensation, pollution, property, and earthquake coverage, as well as extensive risk management training and loss control services.