Arizona's Stupid Motorist Law

Did you know that Arizona has a “Stupid Motorist Law?”  Yep, back in the 1990’s, Arizona lawmakers grew tired of shelling out taxpayer money to rescue defiant and inattentive drivers who drove around barricades and tried to cross flooded roads and washes.  In 1995, they passed Arizona Revised Statutes, § 28-910, now commonly known as the Stupid Motorist Law.  The law makes stupid drivers financially responsible for the cost of their rescue.

Arizona is a desert state.  In many areas of the state, calcium carbonate has been building up for thousands of years just below the sand and gravel surface of the desert floor.  These calcium carbonate or caliche layers are often one to three feet thick in the Sonoran Desert areas of the state.  Caliche is less well developed in the mountain areas but is still found in mountain valleys.  Caliche is a hard, cement like substance that impedes water absorption into the ground.  It is one of the reasons we see such heavy run-off and flooding after a major rain storm.

Big desert storms like those we see during the winter and during monsoon months cause flooding every time they occur.  After mountain rainstorms, water can rush down washes and ravines, causing flash flooding in washes and low-lying roads.  Just this weekend, a flash flood carried away a group of swimmers who were relaxing at a swimming hole north of Payson.  Without warning, a wall of water rushed down the canyon and overwhelmed the swimmers before they had a chance to reach safety.  As of today, four bodies have been found, four have been rescued, and the fate of the remaining swimmers is unknown.

In Pima and Maricopa Counties, many roads run through natural washes created by centuries of rainfall flowing from higher to lower elevations.  For example:  Indian Bend Wash in Scottsdale has been there for millennia, created by water flowing from the foothills in the north valley to the Salt River.  While there are some bridges across Indian Bend Wash, there are also smaller roads that dip into the wash and out the other side. In 2012, a medical transport driver, taking a wheelchair bound patient to a medical appointment, tried to cross Indian Bend Wash at a flooded street near Roosevelt.   The van became stuck in the surging floodwaters.  It took 30 rescuers from Scottsdale, Tempe, and Phoenix to engineer and execute a system to get the wheelchair bound man and his driver to safety.  The driver’s excuse was that she saw someone else drive around the barricade.  They made it across, and she thought she could too.

Another example is Balboa Street in Tucson, near the Oracle Bridge.  Last August a Pima County Supervisor, driving a county owned SUV, was caught in a wash on Balboa Street and swept down to the Oracle Bridge where water flooded up to the windshield of the SUV.  Because the drivers’ side door was pinned against a bridge support, rescuers had a difficult time extracting the supervisor from the SUV.

Many lo- lying roads have signs posted saying: “Do Not Enter When Flooded.” The presence of such a sign is enough to trigger the “Stupid Motorist Law.”  If you see a flooded roadway, don’t try to cross.  You may think you can make it, but don’t take the chance.  Flood waters are swift and powerful.  You can be engulfed and stuck in a matter of seconds.  Worse, you can be swept downstream and drowned.  You have no way to know what lies under the floodwater.  Is the road still intact?  Has the underlying road been washed away?  Has the flood swept large rocks into your path that can damage your vehicle?

Every summer monsoon and every winter storm season, we hear stories on the news about people who ignore warning signs or even drive around barricades and became stuck in a flooded wash.  Without thinking it through, people drive into flooded areas, underestimating the power of rushing water. They often end up losing their vehicle and its contents.  Even worse, some lose their lives.

Most of these “stupid motorists” are long-time residents who should know better.  A.R.S. § 28-910 transfers the cost of rescuing drivers from public agencies to the driver.  It says, in part:  The expenses of an emergency response are a charge against the person liable for those expenses pursuant to Subsection A or B of this section.  The charge constitutes a debt of that person and may be collected proportionately by the public agencies, for-profit entities or non-profit entities that incurred the expenses.”  Damages are capped at $2000.  Subsections A and B describe the violation of driving into a flooded roadway.

Other states are adopting the Arizona law as their own.  In 2016, Ohio enacted a law almost identical to Arizona’s § 28-910.  The Ohio law is called the Allan H. Anderson, Jr. Act.  It is named for a firefighter who was killed trying to rescue two teenagers who had driven into a flooded area. 

Be safe and be sensible.  If you see a flooded roadway after a storm, find another route to your destination.  It may take you longer to get there, but a little caution can save you money and heartache.

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

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