Traffic laws favor drivers over pedestrians

South Dakota traffic laws place more responsibility on pedestrians to be on the lookout for errant drivers than they do for drivers to watch out for walkers, joggers and cyclists when it comes to assigning liability in vehicle versus pedestrian accidents.

The state criminal and civil laws are unique among Great Plains states in the high level of responsibility for safety placed upon pedestrians and in the high legal standards prosecutors or civil attorneys must meet in order to bring charges or secure damages against a motorist.

The traffic laws may come into play soon as an investigation continues into a Sept. 12 fatal pedestrian crash involving South Dakota State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

If a driver in South Dakota is not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and wasn’t obviously “reckless” according to the legal definition of the term, prosecutors face a high bar of evidence when trying to bring criminal charges against drivers who kill or maim pedestrians, said Timothy Rensch, a Rapid City defense lawyer who has defended many clients involved in vehicle versus pedestrian collisions.

Civil attorneys, too, have major hurdles to cross when bringing complaints against drivers who strike pedestrians, due to South Dakota’s unusual take on the concept of “contributory negligence,” said Scott Hoy, a Sioux Falls trial attorney who specializes in recovering damages for those injured in traffic collisions.

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2014, file photo Jason Ravnsborg speaks in Sioux Falls, S.D. South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg reported hitting a deer with his car on Saturday night but actually killed a pedestrian whose body was not found until the next day, state investigators said Monday Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers, File)

When it comes to traffic crashes between pedestrians and vehicles, South Dakota is the only state in the nation that asks jurors in civil lawsuits to determine if a pedestrian’s own negligence is more than “slight” compared to the driver that hit them. But there isn’t much of a legal framework for determining what constitutes a “slight” contribution to a crash, Hoy said.