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Road Sage

Private roads: A lawsuit waiting to happen Add to ...

I can’t prove it. There is no scientific means of verifying the fact, but I can guarantee that right now, as you read this article, somewhere one out-of-shape middle-aged guy is punching another out-of-shape middle-aged guy and the reason for their altercation is a dispute over a private road. Their wives are screaming. The cops are on the way. Call it “Private Road Rage.”

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We often hear about automotive fury on major highways. The news is full of it but consider it an urban phenomenon. Yet, for my money, if you want to take two rational human beings and reduce them to raving lunatics all you need to do is connect them in some way to a private rural road. For instance, on July 24, a Tennessee woman was arrested for assaulting cars on a road that she had dubbed private.

Any route that the government doesn’t own, but that people need to use has in it the seeds of social destruction. Most private road disputes do not end in gunfire (a simple knife fight will do), but the truth is that there are few driving pitfalls that can trigger more ill will than the existence of a private road. The urban equivalent is the shared driveway or as they call it in the UFC the “Octagon.” Why did Oedipus kill his father? They had an argument about right-of-way on a private road. Few fans know it, but novelist Cormac McCarthy’s gruesome tale of post-apocalyptic cannibalism, The Road, was originally called The Private Road, but the title was deemed too disturbing.

I was reminded of this fact last week while visiting a cottage. A private road connects the public road to the lake. It’s been used for over five decades, most of those without dispute. A few years back, however, the land through which much of the private road runs was purchased. The details of what transpired next are fuzzy, but suffice it to say the new owner and the old cottagers did not live in harmony. Harsh words were said and it seems that the new owner looked into closing the road. For various reasons (what litigious types refer to as “the law”). the sudden barricading of a private access road was not possible.

The new owner has done the next best thing. Signs declaring “Private Road” are posted every five feet. According to signage, the speed limit is 10 km/h and honking is strictly forbidden. Anyone wishing to use the road for anything other than “ingress” or “egress” must apply for permission in writing and (assuming it is granted) sign a waiver. The road is now under video surveillance. Not getting the picture? Just imagine the end of Apocalypse Now but along with severed heads and spears there are “Private Road” signs everywhere.

Still confused? Read this:

Private Roads: A Users Guide.

1. Very handy for going from a public road (the “government” owns most of the important ones) to a remote destination.

2. Unlike when you own a home, a private road is neither “private” nor really a “road.”

3. Yes, a long glorified driveway is a private road.

4. They are narrow – when two cars meet, one of you must reverse 500 feet to let the other car pass.

5. If you’re tired of getting along with your neighbours, try getting a private road constructed. You’ll be wishing death on them in no time.

There are two main ways to fall out over a private road. The first is paved with good intentions. Citizens band together to care for a private road and a committee is formed. Each homeowner pays an annual fee that goes toward maintenance. These tend to have very optimistic names, names like “The Three-Mile Lake Residents Association United in Brotherhood for the Best Interests of All” or “The Cedar Lake Committee for the Betterment of All Humankind and that Private Road that runs from Number 46 Side Road to the Marina.”

It takes around 30 minutes after one of these has been formed for the knives to come out. All parties agree to pay their share. But what’s that? Why should cottagers who only use the road during the summer have to pay to have it cleared during the winter? What about the bridge? ATV use? Sooner or later, someone loses it and everyone ends up in court.

The second version involves a private road running through private property. A new owner comes in and doesn’t like people using “their” road. They resent the costs and liability that come with it. Ill will and bad blood flow. Sooner or later, some one loses it. Off to court they go.

So next time you’re driving down a country lane and you see “Private Road: Use at Your Own Risk,” take a minute and think of all the griping and venom that went into the posting of that sign. Think of the unneighbourly behaviour and the legal expense. Then keep on driving and count your blessings.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

Send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

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