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In NC, ignoring ‘road closed’ signs after a hurricane is now both foolish and illegal

Truck crashes into washed out Wake County road and catches fire

ABC11 reports that three people were injured in Rolesville, N.C. after a driver went around barricades and crashed into a hole from a washed out bridge on Mitchell Mill Road near Lassiter Mill Road Monday night, July 8, 2019.
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ABC11 reports that three people were injured in Rolesville, N.C. after a driver went around barricades and crashed into a hole from a washed out bridge on Mitchell Mill Road near Lassiter Mill Road Monday night, July 8, 2019.

Driving around a “road closed” sign or barrier on a flooded or damaged highway may not only be foolish but starting in December it will also be illegal in North Carolina.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law Monday that will make it a misdemeanor to drive on a damaged road that has been closed, or to remove or destroy a barrier meant to keep drivers away. The bill revised an existing law that made it illegal to drive on sections of road that are closed because they’re under construction.

Cooper highlighted the bill, and another one he signed that clarifies that local governments can close roads during emergencies.

“North Carolina lost too many lives to people driving around barriers during Hurricane Florence,” he said in a statement. “These laws empower local leaders to make the best decisions in the face of ever-increasing severe weather in our state.”

At least 10 of the 46 people whose deaths were blamed on Florence in North Carolina drowned when their car or truck was swept away in floodwaters, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

It’s not clear from information released by the state how many of those resulted from people driving around barriers or on roadways where warning signs had been removed. In one high-profile case, a 1-year-old boy drowned in Union County after his mother tried to drive across a flooded bridge where barricades had been put up. She was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, but she later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.

Rep. Allen McNeill, a Republican from Randolph County, said there was no particular incident that prompted him to introduce the bill.

“There are many that have happened across the state where people have driven around barricades and wound up stranded,” McNeill said in an interview. “In some cases they lost their lives. But in all the cases, someone almost always winds up having to go in there and rescue them, and that puts citizens or our first responders in harm’s way.”

During Hurricane Florence and in the days that followed, Cooper and other state officials continually admonished people not to drive on flooded roads and to heed signs and barriers. During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, nearly half of the 51 people thought to have died in the storm in North Carolina drowned when their car or truck was caught in floodwaters. Motor vehicle drownings accounted for 17 of the 26 storm-related deaths following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

By those measures, 10 deaths after Florence suggests the message has resonated. But McNeill thought it made sense to clarify that ignoring a barrier or warning sign is against the law.

“To me it’s just crazy. Why would somebody do that, drive into a flooded area, as much publicity as there is about it?” he said. “Hopefully this will deter them.”

McNeill’s bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. It takes effect Dec. 1, and a violation will be a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and up to 45 days in jail for someone without a prior conviction.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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