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Laws On Public Roads, Fence Laws

( Originally Published 1918 )

Surveys.-In states where surveys are made on base and meridian lines, roads are laid on the section lines. In states where boundaries are fixed by natural objects (by metes and bounds) roads are laid by agreement with owners of the land, though these, if they obstruct what is obviously a necessary public convenience, may be dealt with in condemnation proceedings. All states west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri line have base and meridian lines. Most of the south-ern and eastern states describe by metes and bounds.


1. To prevent collisions, and to secure the safety and convenience of travelers meeting and passing each other upon the highway, a code of rules has been adopted which constitutes what is called the law of the road. These rules, originally established by custom, have, in many instances, been enacted and declared by statute, and are of general and uniform observance in all parts of the United States. In general, they apply to private ways, as well as public roads, and, indeed, extend to all places appropriated, either by law or in fact, for the purposes of travel.

2. Public Roads are those laid out and supported by officers entrusted with that power. Their care and control is regulated by statutes of different states, and in detail will not be referred to here, as they can be easily looked up by those who desire information so entirely local.

3. Ownership.—The soil and the land remain in the owner, who may put the land to any use, and derive from it any profit, not inconsistent with the rights of the public. If the road is at any time discontinued, the land reverts to the owner.

4. Liability.—The repair of highways is usually imposed upon towns, and they are made liable by statute for all damages against persons or estates, from injuries received or happening in consequence of a neglect of duty on the part of the officers having the same in charge.

5. The Primary law of the road is that all persons using the same must exercise due care to prevent collisions and accidents. No one can claim damages for an injury mainly caused by his own negligence.

6. Persons traveling with carriages or vehicles of transportation, meeting on any public way, are required to turn their carriages or wagons to the right of the center of the road, so far as to permit other carriages or wagons to pass without interruption. Any unreasonable occupation of the public way, whether arising out of a refusal to turn out and allow a more rapid vehicle to pass, or from an unjustifiable occupancy of such a part of the road as to prevent others from passing, will render the party so trespassing liable for dam-ages to any suffering injuries therefrom. A loaded vehicle must turn out, and allow those to pass who may reasonably and lawfully travel faster.

7. Riders are not governed by any fixed rules, but are required to use reasonable prudence at all times to prevent accidents. They need less room and can make quicker movements, and are, therefore, not under as well defined rules as vehicles.

8. Pedestrians have a right to use the carriage-way as well as the sidewalk, and drivers must exercise reasonable care to avoid injuring them, but a foot passenger in crossing the street of a city has no prior right of way over a passing vehicle; both are bound to act with prudence to avoid an accident, and it is as much the duty of the pedestrian to look out for passing vehicles as it is for the driver to see that he does not run over any one; nor does the rule requiring vehicles to keep to the right apply to carriages and foot passengers, for, as regards a foot passenger, a carriage may go on either side.

9. Runaways.—The owner of a runaway horse or horses, if negligent, or not exercising due care, is responsible for all damages that may occur. If a horse naturally quiet to ride and drive is frightened by a railroad train, steam thresher or other causes not under the control of the rider or driver, and does any damage, or injures any person or persons, the owner is not responsible. If horses are known to be vicious, or sustain a runaway reputation, break loose or run away with their driver, or injure any person or persons, the owner is responsible, unless it can be shown that the horses were frightened by some obstacle which would naturally frighten a gentle or ordinarily quiet horse.

Special Care Required of Automobilists

While the drivers of automobiles enjoy the same rights on the highways as are possessed by pedestrians, the nature of the duty imposed upon them is to be viewed and determined as commensurate with the risk entailed through the probable dangers attending the particular situation. Thus, the degree of diligence which must be exercised in a particular exigency is such as is necessary to prevent injuring others; and in considering whether the operator of an auto-mobile has exercised due diligence, the character of the instrumentality which he was operating, and the danger attached to its operation, as well as the character of the highway and the probability of inflicted injuries, are all to be taken into account.

A Georgia court says: "The pedestrian and the automobile have equal rights upon the highway, but their capacity of inflicting injury is vastly disproportioned. It follows, also, from this that the driver of an automobile cannot be said to be in the exercise of due care, if he takes advantage of the force, weight and power of his machine as a means of compelling pedestrians to yield to his machine superior rights upon the public highway, designed for the use of all members of the public upon equal terms.

"Sometimes the circumstances surrounding the approach of one of these vehicles of ponderous proportions inspires a terror which paralyzes the power of locomotion on the part of the traveler on foot—especially if he be a child of tender years. In such case, the dangerous character of the instrumentality forbids the assertion that the driver has exercised even ordinary diligence, unless he has used every possible means to avoid injury to the pedestrian." [See "Automobile Insurance," Page 441]

Petition for Laying Out a Road

To the Commissioners of the Town of Plainfield, County of Will, State of Illinois.

Your petitioners, of the town of Plainfield, would respectfully represent that the public convenience and wants require that a road and highway should be laid out and constructed beginning at the northeast corner of George E. Smith's farm, in the town of Plainfield, and leading in a direct line south to the town of Lockport.

Your petitioners would therefore ask that your honors would view the premises and locate and construct said road and highway, according to the laws in such cases made and provided, as shown by the statutes of the State.

Signatures. Signatures.

Petition for Changing a Road

To the Commissioners for the County of

The undersigned respectfully represent that the public road and highway from the house of J. H. Nolan, in the town of Oswego, passing the house of G. H. Faust, to the house of Charles Peterson, in the town of Oswego, is indirect, inconvenient and out of the way; wherefore, your petitioners request your honorable body to view the premises, straighten or new locate such road, and discontinue such parts of the present highway as may be useless, or make such alterations or improvements as shall appear to your honors necessary.

Signatures. Signatures.

That an improved road will increase vastly the productiveness of the area through which it runs has now been satisfactorily demonstrated by studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture in Virginia. Conditions in Spotsylvania County were investigated with particular care, and the results have proved surprising. In 1909 the county voted $100,000 to improve 40 miles of roads. Two years after the completion of this work the railroad took away in 12 months from Fredericksburg, the county seat, 71,000 tons of agricultural and forest products hauled over the highways to that town. Before the improvement of the roads this total was only 49,000 tons annually; in other words, the quantity of the county's produce had risen more than 45 per cent. Still more interesting, however, is the increase shown in the quantity of the dairy products. In 1909 these amounted to 114,815 pounds, in 1911 to 273,028 pounds, an increase of practically 140 per cent in two years. In the same time shipments of wheat had increased 59 per cent, tobacco 31 per cent, and lumber and other forest products 48 per cent.

In addition to this increase in quantity the cost of hauling each ton of produce was materially reduced. In other words, the farmers not only produce more, but produce more cheaply, for the cost of transportation to market is of course an important factor in the cost of production. From this point of view, it is estimated that the $100,000 spent in improving the roads in Spotsylvania County saved the framers of that county $41,000 a year.

In 1913-14 the traffic studies of the Federal experts show that approximately an average of 65,000 tons of outgoing products were hauled over the improved roads in the county an average distance of 8 miles, or a total of 520,000 "ton-miles." Before the roads were improved it was estimated that the average cost of hauling was 20 cents a "ton-mile;" after the improvement this fell to 12 cents a "ton-mile," or a saving of 8 cents. A saving of 8 cents per mile on 520,000 "ton-miles" is $41,000 a year. The county's investment of $100,000 in other words returns a dividend of 40 per cent annually.

Because this saving, in cases of this character, does not take the form of cash put directly into the farmer's pocket, there is a widespread tendency to believe that it is fictitious profit, while as a matter of fact it is just as real a profit as an increase in the price of wheat.

In Dinwiddie County, Va., for example, where peanuts are one of the staple crops, the average load for two mules on a main road was about 1,000 pounds before the road was improved. After its improvement the average load was found to be 2,000 pounds, and the time consumed in hauling the larger load to market was much reduced. In other words, one man with a wagon and two mules could do more than twice as much work with the improved road than with an unimproved road. This is the explanation of the extraordinary rise in the total output of agricultural products in a county with a good road system.

Fences are mostly regulated by statutes of the state where located. There are certain laws, however, that are applicable to them generally.

Legal Fence.—The laws of the several states provide what shall constitute a legal fence, which generally must be four feet high, with sufficient hoards or wire, or both, to turn cattle.

Damages.—As a general rule all premises must be properly inclosed before damages can be recovered from the owner of trespassing stock for injury thereto, but' in some states the rule is otherwise.

Partition, or Division Fences.—The owners of adjacent tracts of land, in most of the states, are each bound to erect and maintain one-half of a suitable fence along the line separating such tracts.

Repairs.—Each party is bound to look after his own part of the fence and keep it in good repair, and he must restrain his own stock from trespassing upon the lands of his neighbor.

Fence-Viewers, in some of the states, are provided for by statute to determine the just share of each party liable to maintain a partition fence, and suitable methods are provided for enforcing their awards.

Railroads are required by statute in many states to fence their tracks, and a failure to do so renders them liable for stock killed by reason of non-compliance with the statute.

Barb Wire fences should be so used and cared for as not to endanger persons and property, and the use of such fences imposes upon those who use them care reasonably proportionate to their danger.

Railroads using barb-wire fences must use due diligence in running their trains, not only to avoid killing stock, but to avoid precipitating them by fright against a fence.

Contributory Negligence on the part of the owner of the stock may preclude him from recovering damages from the railroad company for such killing, mangling, or bruising. But, it has recently been decided, that not every neglect on the part of the owner to take precaution against such killing or injury, will deprive him of his right to recover damages therefor. For instance, it was held that the owner of land through which runs a railroad and a county road, who turns his horse on the latter road to graze, with a knowledge of the character and condition of a barbed-wire fence erected by the railway company along the line of its right of way, is not thereby guilty of such contributory negligence as will preclude his right of recovery for injuries to his horse from its contact with the fence, through fright caused by the running of a train over the company's track.

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