Illinois Local Officials Better Think Before They Decide to Provide Traffic Signage

To quote the Queen of Soul, Illinois local government officials “better think about what they’re trying to do” . . . when they decide to provide traffic signage.

Under Illinois law, there is no affirmative duty placed on municipalities to post any traffic control devices.  Indeed, under Section 3-104 the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, local authorities are completely immune from any potential liability that may arise out of their decision not to initially provide a traffic control device.

This was not, however, always the case.  Prior to 1986, Section 3-104 had a sub-section (b), which created an exemption to tort immunity for local authorities where a traffic control device was necessary to warn of a condition which “endangered the safe movement of traffic.”  In 1986, the Illinois legislature deleted sub-section (b) Section 3-104, the ultimate effect of which was to absolutely immunize an initial failure to provide a traffic control device.

QAdTsSj8TOOWzlyLn3Rg_14248396556_aefcd9a926_oIn 1992, the Illinois Supreme Court interpreted the revision to Section 3-104 in West v. Kirkham.  The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the city of Urbana, finding that the 1986 amendment to the Illinois Tort Immunity Act both expanded the scope of immunized actions, and, more importantly, by the deletion of sub-section (b), absolutely immunized a municipality even where such a failure might “endanger the safe movement of traffic.”    In doing so, the Illinois Supreme Court established Section 3-104 as a municipality’s best defense to any claim that it should have provided a traffic control device – whether signage, lighting, or roadway markings – and failed to do so.

Since then, however, subsequent cases have nevertheless reinforced the long-standing principle that once a municipal authority has made the decision to provide a public improvement, they are required to do so in a “non-negligent” manner.

The Illinois Vehicle Code requires local authorities to place and maintain their traffic control devices in conformance with national manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, as adopted by the Illinois Department of Transportation.  Thus, when a municipal authority decides, for reasons of safety or economy, to provide a traffic control device, they must do so in a “non-negligent manner”, and that means complying with the Illinois Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Snyder v. Curran Township, decided by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1995, analyzed the interplay between the absolute immunity granted to municipalities for discretionary acts such as the failure to initially provide traffic control devices, and ministerial acts like the Illinois Vehicle Code requirement that local authorities comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

The Supreme Court held that once a municipal authority makes the (discretionary) decision to provide the warning sign, the installation itself is a ministerial act, requiring the township to do so in a “non-negligent manner” that complies with the Illinois Manual, for which municipalities do not enjoy tort immunity.

Like the advice given to all of us by our parents at some point, it is important to think before acting.  Local municipal authorities should always bear in mind that they have complete immunity for the discretionary decision not to initially provide a traffic control device.  However, once the municipality decides, after considering the needs and safety of its citizenry, to provide such a device, the action is no longer discretionary, but ministerial.  The municipality must always be aware of its obligation to comply with all statutory and administrative guidelines in the performance of its now-ministerial duties.