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As I understand it (and please correct me if I'm wrong), in aviation and in maritime traffic, there is an overriding obligation to operate safely and avoid accidents/damage. E.g.:

Alice and Bob are both cargo ship captains. Alice is bringing her ship into port, in perfect accordance with all relevant laws and guidelines. Bob's ship, close by, starts behaving erratically (either due to technical problems or human error on Bob's part). There is a risk of collision. Alice's ship has ample opportunity to change course and eliminate the risk, but Alice refuses to do so because "Hey, I followed all the rules - this isn't my problem." A collision ends up occurring, resulting in material damage, huge delays & opportunity costs, and perhaps even loss of life.

My understanding (again, please correct me if I'm mistaken) is that in the above situation, Alice would have been expected to take action to avoid the collision, and bears some degree of (criminal or civil) liability for failing to do so, even though all she did was 'follow the rules'.

My question is whether any similar principle exists for road users. An example:

Carol and Dave are driving their cars across a level crossing, with Carol ahead and Dave following. Just after clearing the crossing, Carol's car halts (or slows down to a crawl), leaving Dave with insufficient space and trapping him on the tracks. The bells ring and the barriers begin to descend, indicating that a train is on the way.

Of course, Dave should have known better than to cross a level crossing when there isn't already sufficient space on the other side. But now that the situation has occurred, and Carol is able to easily resolve it, is she under any legal obligation to do so? If she does not, is she civilly liable to Dave (or possibly to the engineer & passengers on the train)? Has she committed a criminal offence?

Does it matter whether Carol has a generally valid reason for stopping (e.g. she's letting a passenger disembark onto the sidewalk, perhaps completely unaware of Dave's predicament) or not (e.g. she's a bully who spontaneously decides she'd find it hilarious to terrify the driver behind her, maybe kill him, and possibly derail a train - and is later caught admitting as much in a brag to friends)?

Say Dave, after a fruitless ten seconds of frantic klaxoning with the train barreling down, decides to floor it and physically push Carol's car with his own so that he can get off the tracks. Is Dave then liable for the damage he's caused to Carol's car? Has Dave committed a criminal offence by driving into her car? Is Carol possibly on the hook for the damage this maneuver caused to Dave's car?

I live in Belgium so that's the answer I'm most interested in, but I also welcome insights from other jurisdictions. I imagine this is an area of law that could easily vary quite a bit.

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  • 2
    We will assume Dave is also followed by Carol's evil brother who, mirroring his sister's obstruction, does so likewise behind Dave and is therefore preventing him from using the reverse gear to save himself... do we now have to address the topic of conspiracy? – J... Mar 23 at 20:59
  • In your first example: Definitely yes. As captain of a vessel you have to do everything you can to avoid an accident. In Germany, the corresponding rule is named "Allgemeine Sorgfaltspflicht des Schiffsführers". It seems to be an EU regulation, so the rule applies to all EU countries and all ships under a flag of an EU country - and Belgium is an EU country. The Austrian rule uses the same wording as the German one, so I think this is the literal translation of the EU regulation. – Martin Rosenau Mar 24 at 7:23
  • Rule 2b of the International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea reads: In construing and complying with these rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these rules necessary to avoid immediate danger. The IRPCS form part of an international treaty. sailtrain.co.uk/Irpcs/rule2.htm – dbmag9 Mar 24 at 13:53
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There are multiple questions on different areas of law, but I will answer purely on any criminal liability arising by the drivers concerned and leave the question(s) on civil liability to others.

The general rule to avoid creating unsafe situations appears to be in the Royal Decree of 1 December 1975, at Article 7, which states (via English translation):

7.2 Users must behave on public roads in such a way that they do not cause any inconvenience or danger to other users, including the staff working for the maintenance of the road and the equipment bordering it, the surveillance services and priority vehicles.

Here are some specific regulations/offences relating to the railway crossing incident:

Under Article 4 of the 30 September 2005 Decree:

It is forbidden to stop or park a vehicle on level crossings.

  Carol may have committed an offence under Chapter 2, Article 2 of the 1975 Decree:

  1. It is forbidden to stop a vehicle or park it in any place where it is obviously likely to constitute a danger for other road users or to obstruct them unnecessarily...

Dave may have committed an offence under Article 20 of the 1975 Decree:

20.2. The user approaching a level crossing must be extra careful to avoid any accident: when the level crossing is not equipped with barriers or traffic light signals or when these signals do not work, the user can only enter it after making sure that no vehicle on rails is approaching.

...

20.4. The driver cannot enter a level crossing if the traffic congestion is such that he would in all likelihood be immobilized on this crossing.

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In addition to the provisions mentioned by @RockApe in his answer, there is also a general obligation arising under tort law under Beligum's civil code that is not particular to travel on roads:

Article 1382 to 1386 of the Belgian Civil Code set out the general principles of tort liability.

2.2.1 Negligence-based liability: article 1382 & 1383 Civil Code

According to article 1382 Civil Code: "Any act whatever of man which cause damage to another obliges him by whose fault it occurred to make reparation." The fault may consist in negligence according to the terms of article 1383 which provides that "each one is liable for the damage which he causes not only by his own act but also by his negligence or imprudence".

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2

UK law has general "catch-all" categories of motoring offences, aside from specific legislation on topics like uninsured or unsafe vehicles, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, etc:

  • Careless driving: "when the defendant's driving falls below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver."
  • Dangerous driving: As for careless driving, when "it would be obvious that driving in that way would be dangerous."

Each has sub-categories for incidents causing deaths, or serious injuries.

(There is also the quaintly named catch-all offence of "wanton or furious driving" which covers incidents not on public roads, and incidents involving unpowered and/or unlicensed vehicles such as bicycles, horse-drawn vehicles, etc.)

The "standard expected" is described in general terms in a document called the "Highway Code", which all drivers are expected to be familiar with (and they are tested on its contents as part of the UK driving test).

The Highway Code sections on railway level crossings (291 through 299) do not explicitly mention stopping on a level crossing, but the crossings I am familiar with all have road markings prohibiting stopping in the "danger area" in any case, and Carol would be guilty of ignoring such markings.

Since most automatic barrier-controlled crossings in the UK have barriers extending only half way across the road, when the warning signals sounded Dave would probably have been able to reverse off the crossing on the wrong side of the road even after the barriers had come down.

In any case, when the warning sounded there should have been time for Dave to clear the crossing either by reversing, or overtaking Carol's car, before the barriers came down. It would be a matter for the court to decide whether or not ramming Carol's car was an unreasonable solution to Dave's problem.

(The only UK railway crossings I know of with full-width barriers or gates are manually controlled by a railway signalman, and therefore the train would have been stopped by a red light until the crossing was clear and the gates closed.)

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  • As the question is written, Carol didn't have to stop "on" the crossing, just close enough after it that Dave couldn't get clear. I doubt that would give her much wiggle room. And your last paragraph isn't usually the case (it may apply in some high-risk spots) - the road gate should be shut in sufficient time that the train doesn't need to slow. The signallers are far away but have CCTV. – Chris H Mar 24 at 22:24
  • This one near a station is typical (2-part barriers). The gate to enter closes just ahead of the one to leave, so Dave wouldn't have much time to back out even if no car there, or to drive round on the wrong side of the road, and would be past the warning lights. Audible warnings aren't universal and Dave could be deaf or souding his horn. Types and regulations for the UK (pdf) – Chris H Mar 24 at 22:31
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German law, sections 1 and 11 of Straßenverkehrsordnung (StVO):

Straßenverkehrs-Ordnung

I. – Allgemeine Verkehrsregeln (§§ 1 – 35)

§ 1 Grundregeln

  1. Die Teilnahme am Straßenverkehr erfordert ständige Vorsicht und gegenseitige Rücksicht.

  2. Wer am Verkehr teilnimmt hat sich so zu verhalten, dass kein Anderer geschädigt, gefährdet oder mehr, als nach den Umständen unvermeidbar, behindert oder belästigt wird.

§ 11 Besondere Verkehrslagen

  1. Stockt der Verkehr, darf trotz Vorfahrt oder grünem Lichtzeichen nicht in die Kreuzung oder Einmündung eingefahren werden, wenn auf ihr gewartet werden müsste.

[…]

  1. Auch wer sonst nach den Verkehrsregeln weiterfahren darf oder anderweitig Vorrang hat, muss darauf verzichten, wenn die Verkehrslage es erfordert; auf einen Verzicht darf man nur vertrauen, wenn man sich mit dem oder der Verzichtenden verständigt hat.

Official translation:

German Road Traffic Regulations

I. – General traffic rules

Section 1 Basic rules

  1. Use of the road requires constant care and mutual respect.

  2. A person using the road shall act in such a way as not to harm or endanger or, more than is unavoidable in the circumstances, to hinder or inconvenience any other person.

Section 11 Special traffic situations

  1. If traffic is moving slowly, vehicles must not enter an intersection or junction, even if they have the right of way or the traffic lights are green, if by doing so they would be forced to wait there.

[…]

  1. Moreover, anyone who, according to traffic rules, may proceed or otherwise has the right of way must relinquish this priority if the traffic situation so requires; a person not having the right of way may proceed only if the person having the right of way has signalled to them to do so.
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  • My German is nowhere near good enough to attempt a translation, but I ran it through Google Translate. You/anyone else should feel free to touch it up. – Ryan M Mar 23 at 1:11
  • Just to clarify, while German is one of the official languages in Belgium, this is not the German variant of Belgium law. – MSalters Mar 23 at 9:15
  • @MSalters: this answer is not related to Belgium, but OP asks for answers regarding other jurisdictions in the last sentence of his question. – AnoE Mar 23 at 14:24
  • thanks for the edits! yes, this is about german law, not belgian. – Monalisa Mar 23 at 20:29
  • made it a community wiki answer, so it is easier to edit more. – Monalisa Mar 23 at 20:33
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In Italy a ruling from the Cassazione, the highest court of appeal, stated that drivers must pay attention to the imprudence of others. This is described in this article, whose main part says:

La Corte di Cassazione, sezione III civile, con la sentenza n.9528, depositata il 12 giugno 2012, ha ribadito due solidi principi: chi attraversa l'incrocio con precedenza deve prestare attenzione anche alle imprudenze altrui, e il giudice che accerta la violazione di un diritto di precedenza non deve esimersi dall'accertare la correttezza di entrambe le condotte dei conducenti coinvolti. Così, a un automobilista palermitano che attraversava un intersezione provenendo da destra, con diritto di precedenza, è stato diminuito il risarcimento prima del 30%, poi del 20% in appello, percentuale confermata in Cassazione. Pur essendo accertato che l'altro conducente non aveva rispettato l'obbligo di dare precedenza, è stata accertata anche una mancata moderazione della velocità all'incrocio da parte del conducente “con ragione”, che quindi ha concorso a determinare l'evento dannoso.

Translated to English:

The Court of Cassation, Civil Section III, with sentence n.9528, filed on 12 June 2012, reaffirmed two solid principles: whoever crosses the intersection with precedence must also pay attention to the imprudence of others, and judges who ascertain the violation of a right of way must not exempt themselves from ascertaining the correctness of both behaviors of the drivers involved. Thus, for a motorist from Palermo who crossed an intersection coming from the right, with right of way, the compensation was reduced first by 30%, then by 20% on appeal, a percentage confirmed in the Supreme Court. Although it was ascertained that the other driver had not respected the obligation to give priority, it was also ascertained that the driver did not moderate the speed at the intersection “with reason”, which therefore contributed to determining the harmful event.

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I would be surprised if you were allowed in any legislation in any context to intentionally expose other people to significant danger, if you could avoid it with reasonable effort. This is a basic principle of living together in a civilization. Probably all law systems reflect this with the concept of negligence.

Interestingly, because maneuvers on water are slow and need predicable behavior from the participants, there is an obligation for the vessel that has priority to maintain course. This rule has no equivalent in any traffic rules I'm aware of. This means that on land the obligation to keep others out of danger is, if anything, even more unambiguous than on water.

Quoting the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea:

Rule 17 : Action by stand-on vessel

    (a)
        (i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way 
            the other shall keep her course and speed.

But in accordance with the general considerations concerning how people live together, outlined above, this duty to hold course established in (a)(i) is lifted in (a)(ii) and turned into a duty to change course in order to avoid an imminent danger in (b):

        (ii) The latter vessel may however take action to avoid collision 
             by her manoeuvre alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her 
             that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking 
             appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.
    (b) When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed 
        finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action 
        of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will 
        best aid to avoid collision.
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