North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
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June 18, 1979

Subject:

Motor Vehicles; Failure to Decrease Speed; N.C.G.S. § 20-141(m)

Requested By:

Ms. Mary Claire McNaught Public Safety Attorney Winston-Salem, N.C.

Question:

Does N.C.G.S. § 20-141(m) create a criminal offense of failure to decrease speed as necessary to avoid a collision as well as a "standard of care" in establishing civil negligence?

Conclusion:

Yes.

N.C.G.S.
§ 20-141(m) does create a criminal offense of failure to decrease speed as necessary to avoid a collision under N.C.G.S. § 20-176(a) declares a misdemeanor punishable under N.C.G.S. § 20-176(b) "by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars ($100.00) or by imprisonment in the county or municipal jail for not more than 60 days, or by both such fine and imprisonment."
N.C.G.S.
§ 20-141(m) provides:

"The fact that the speed of a vehicle is lower than the foregoing limits shall not relieve the operator of a vehicle from the duty to decrease speed as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person, vehicle or other conveyance on or enter the highway, and to avoid injury to any person or property."

N.C.G.S.
§ 20-176 penalty for misdemeanor (a) provides:
"It shall be unlawful and constitute a misdemeanor for any person to violate any of the provisions of this Article unless such violation is by this Article or other law of this State declared to be a felony."
N.C.G.S.
§ 20-141 establishes the legal speed restrictions for North Carolina. Subsections (m) establishes a mandatory duty to decrease the speed of a vehicle to avoid a collision even though the speed is lower than the legal limit. Subsection (m) is a safety statute enacted by the legislature for the public welfare. The legislature in passing this safety statute had the intent of making a violation of the duty a criminal offense thereby shifting to the individual the burden to know whether his conduct is within the statutory requirements. See Poultry Co. v. Thomas, 289 N.C. 7 (1975).

The predecessor of N.C.G.S. § 20-141(m) was found in N.C.G.S. 20-141(c) (1965).

"The fact that the speed of a vehicle is lower than the (statutory limits) shall not relieve the driver from the duty to decrease speed when approaching and crossing an intersection, when approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hill crest, when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway, or when special hazard exists with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions, and speed shall be decreased as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person, vehicle, or other conveyance on or entering the highway, and to avoid causing injury to any person or property either on or off the highways, in compliance with legal requirements and the duty of all persons to use due care."

Former subsection (c) was not reincorporated in N.C.G.S. 20-141 when it was rewritten, 1973 Session Laws, Chapter 1330 § 7, effective 1 January 1975, but was held in State v. Gainey, 292

N.C. 627 (1977) to be encompassed in N.C.G.S. 20-141(a) (1975) and thus to still constitute a valid standard for criminal conduct. The legislature amended N.C.G.S. § 20-141 in 1977 adding subsection (m) which substantially restates the prior law. This Office has previously ruled that former subsection (c) created a criminal offense of failure to decrease speed to avoid a collision. See, Opinion of the Attorney General, May 1, 1969.

The safety statutes do prescribe standard of care that is applicable for civil negligence. Davis v. Imes, 13 N.C. App. 521 (1972). Violations of the safety statutes may also constitute a criminal violation if the violation occurred in a criminally culpably negligent manner and was the proximate cause of injury, State v. Gainey, 292 N.C. 627 (1977). Criminal or culpable negligence requires something more than actionable negligence in the law of torts, State v. Massey, 271 N.C. 557 (1967).

N.C.G.S. § 20-141(m) therefore establishes a duty that by intent and precedent can support either or both civil and criminal actions.

Rufus L. Edmisten Attorney General

William W. Melvin Deputy Attorney General