Putnam's Handy Law Book for the Layman

Automobile. - The members of the public have a right to use the public avenues for the purpose of travel and of transporting property: nor has the driver of horses any right in the road superior to the right of the driver of an automobile. Each has the same rights, and each is equally restricted in exercising them by the corresponding rights of the other.

Again, the public ways are not confined to the original use of them, nor to horses and ordinary carriages. "The use to which the public thoroughfare may be put comprehends all modern means of carrying including the electric street railroad and automobile." It has been declared that the fact that motor vehicles may be novel and unusual in appearance and for that reason are likely to frighten horses which are unaccustomed to see them, is no reason why the courts should adopt the view of prohibiting such machines.

The general rule is that all travelers have equal rights to use the highways. An automobile therefore has the same rights and no more than those of a footman.

The mere fact that automobiles are run by motor power, and may be operated at a dangerous and high rate of speed, gives them no superior rights on the highway over other vehicles, any more so than would the driving of a race horse give the driver superior rights on the highway over his less fortunate neighbor who is pursuing his journey behind a slower horse.

There is no authority or power in the state to exclude non-resident motorists from the public ways, nor have the states power to place greater restrictions or burdens on non-resident automobilists than those imposed on their own citizens.

A license to operate an automobile is merely a privilege. It does not constitute a contract, consequently it does not necessarily pass to a purchaser of the vehicle, and may, for a good reason, be revoked. Moreover the charge imposed for the privilege of operating a motor on the highway is not generally considered a tax, only a mere license or privilege fee.

An automobile may be hired from the owner. This is called in law a bailment. The bailor is not responsible generally for any negligence of the hirer in operating the car. Nor is the rule changed should the hirer be an unskilled person, unless he was an immature child or clearly lacking in mental capacity, or was intoxicated. Where the owner of an automobile delivered it to another by agreement, who was to pay the purchase price from the money derived from its use, and thereafter had complete control of the machine, his negligence could not be charged to the seller.

Again, where an automobile is hired and the chauffeur is also furnished by the owner, who pays him for operating the car, and the hirer has no authority over him except to direct his ways of going, the chauffeur is regarded as the servant of the owner. He, therefore, and not the hirer is responsible for the negligence of the chauffeur. Of course, the rule would be changed if the hirer assumed the management of the car: then the hirer alone would be liable for the chauffeur's negligence.

A party who hires an automobile from another is bound to take only ordinary care of it and is not responsible for damage whenever ordinary prudence has been exercised while the car was in his custody. If lost through theft, or is injured as a result of violence, the hirer is only answerable when these consequences were clearly the result of his own imprudence or negligence. The hirer though must account for the loss or injury. Having done this, the proof of negligence or want of care is thrown on the bailor.

If the hirer should sell the automobile without authority to a third party, the owner or bailor may bring an action against even an innocent purchaser who believed that the hirer had the title and power to sell.

There is an implied obligation on the hirer's part to use the car only for the purpose and in the manner for which it was hired. And if it is used in a different way and for a longer time, the hirer may be responsible for a loss even though this was inevitable.

Suppose the hirer misuses the car, what can the owner do? He can repossess himself, if this can be done peaceably, otherwise he must bring an action for the purpose. As the hirer acquires a qualified title to the property, he can maintain an action against all persons except the owner, and even against him so far as the contract of letting may set forth the relations between them.

When an owner or hirer undertakes to convey a passenger to a specified place and, while on the way, the car breaks down, if it cannot be properly mended at the time and the owner or hirer is able to furnish another, the law requires him to do so and thus fulfil his contract.

"The owner of a motor vehicle," says Huddy, "is of course entitled to compensation for the use of the machine. If a definite sum is not stated in the contract between the parties, there arises an implied undertaking that the hirer shall pay a reasonable amount. One who uses another's automobile without consent or knowledge of the owner, may be liable to pay a reasonable hire therefor. In case the hirer is a corporation, there may arise the question whether the agent of the company making the contract has authority to bind the company. Where a machine is hired for joy riding on Sunday, it has been held that the contract is illegal and the hirer cannot recover for the use of the automobile."

The speed of automobiles along the public highways may be regulated by law. A municipality may forbid the use of some kinds of motor vehicles on certain streets, but it cannot broadly exclude all of them from all the streets. The rules regulating travel on highways in this country are called, "the law of the road." The object of these rules is to prevent collisions and other accidents, which would be likely to occur if no regulations existed.

A pedestrian who is about to cross a street may rely on the law of the road that vehicles will approach on the proper side of the street. This rule however does not apply to travelers walking along a rural highway. Huddy says: "When overtaking or meeting such a person, it is the duty of both the pedestrian and the driver of the machine to exercise ordinary care to avoid a collision, but no rule is, as a general proposition, definitely prescribed as to which side of the pedestrian the passage shall be made."

The law of the road requiring vehicles to pass each other on the right, contrary to the English custom, has been reënforced in many or all the states by statutory enactments, and applies also to automobiles. When, therefore, two vehicles meet and collide on a public highway, which is wide enough for them to pass with safety, the traveler on the wrong side of the road is responsible for the injury sustained by the other. But a traveler is not justified in getting his machine on the right-hand side of the road and then proceeding regardless of other travelers; on the contrary, the duty of exercising reasonable care to avoid injuries to others still continues.

Not only must each one pass to the right, but each must pass on his own side of the center line of the highway, or wrought part of the road. And when the road is covered with snow, travelers who meet must turn to the right of the traveled part of the road as it then appears, regardless of what would be the traveled part when the snow is gone. After passing the rear of the forward vehicle an automobilist must exercise reasonable care in turning back toward the right into the center of the highway, and if he turns too soon he may be liable for damages caused by striking or frightening the horses. "If two vehicles meet in the street, it is the duty of each of them, as seasonably as he can, to get each on his own right-hand side of the traveled way of the street."

The rights of travelers along intersecting streets are equal, and each must exercise ordinary care to avoid injury to the other. An automobilist nearing an intersection should run at proper speed, have his car under reasonable control, and along the right-hand side of the street. If two travelers approach the street crossing at the same time neither is justified in assuming that the other will stop to let him pass. When one vehicle reaches the intersection directly in advance of the other, he is generally accorded the right of way, and the other should delay his progress to enable the other to pass in safety.

The driver of an automobile may be charged with negligence if, without warning to a vehicle approaching from the rear, he turns or backs his machine and causes a collision. Indeed, it is negligence for a chauffeur to back his machine on a city street or public highway without looking backward; and especially if one backs his car on a street car track without looking for street cars.

If an obstruction exists on the right-hand side of a highway, the driver of a car may be justified in passing to the other side, and in driving along that side until he has passed the obstacle. Under such circumstances he has a right to be on the left side temporarily; and if he exercises the proper degree of care while there, is not liable for injuries arising from a collision with another traveler. But if the obstruction is merely temporary, it may be the duty of the driver to wait for the removal and not to pass on the wrong side of the highway.

An automobilist must exercise reasonable or ordinary care to avoid injury to other persons using the highway. What this is depends on many circumstances, and each case to some extent is decided by its own facts. Consequently thousands of cases have already arisen, and doubtless they will still multiply as long as automobiles are used and their users are negligent.

The competency of the driver is one of the unending questions. Of course he should be physically fit, not subject to sudden attacks of dizziness, possessing sufficient strength and proper eyesight and a sober non-excitable disposition. It is said, that a chauffeur is not incompetent who requires glasses. But he certainly would be if his eyesight was poor and could not be aided by the use of them.

The driver must at all times have his car under reasonable control so that he can stop in time to avoid injury. He must keep a reasonably careful lookout for other travelers in order to avoid collision; also for defects in the highway. If by reason of weather conditions, lights or other obstructions, he is unable to see ahead of him, he should stop his car. If there be no facilities for stopping for the night, a driver is not negligent should he proceed through the fog.

Passing to the liability of the owner of a car for the acts of his chauffeur, the general rule is, he is then liable when the chauffeur is acting within the scope of his owner's business. When the owner himself is riding in the car there is less difficulty in fixing the liability, but when the chauffeur uses the car without the owner's consent, he is not liable for the conduct of the driver. And this is especially so in using a car contrary to the owner's instructions and for the chauffeur's pleasure; or in using it for his own business with the owner's consent. And the same rule generally prevails whenever a member of a family uses his parent's car without his knowledge and consent, and especially when forbidden. But the parent is liable for the running of a car with his knowledge by a member of his family and for the convenience or pleasure of other members. See Chauffeur; Garage Keeper.


Do It Yourself Legal Forms
Law for the Laymen - Automobile
Page Updated 8:05 PM Thursday 7/10/2014