Tree Transport Can Trigger Trouble

Dashcam footage from the Sudbury, MA police shows a small car with a massive Christmas tree tied to its roof

It’s a favorite holiday image: the tree tied to the roof of the family car, with mom, dad and the kids singing carols and sipping cocoa as they ferry it home. But as one Sudbury driver learned, too much tree can attract the attention of police.

A driver was pulled over on November 24th in Sudbury while trying to move a gargantuan tree lashed to the roof of a car. Police did not reveal whether they cited the driver, but they did release a dashcam photo showing the back window, side windows and most of the rest of the car obscured by holiday boughs.

Know the Law Before You Transport that Tree

It is not illegal in Massachusetts to tie a tree to your car roof to take it home, but there are some cases that will invite a rendezvous with the police. As a rule, police are concerned with your safety and the safety of other drivers on the road. If your annual tree retrieval violates safety laws and you get into a car accident, you could be facing liability that will make your holiday shopping bill look like pocket change.

Here are three things to consider before you pull out of the tree lot:

  1. Are any windows or mirrors blocked? Massachusetts law requires that drivers have visibility through the front windshield, back window, side windows and a driver’s side mirror. For vehicles such as trucks and vans with no rear window, mirrors on both the driver and passenger sides must be free of any obstruction. Don’t drive with blocked windows, even if it’s a short distance on local roads.
  2. Is the tree tied down correctly? The best way to move the tree is to have the stump pointed toward the front of the vehicle. Secure both ends of the tree and, if possible, have the tree wrapped in netting to keep the branches snug. Following these steps helps to keep air from lifting the tree off the roof. If the tree comes loose and hits another vehicle, or causes an accident when drivers swerve to avoid it, you will be liable. Double check that the tree is secure before you begin travel, and check on the tree after you’ve driven a short distance. Trees transported in pickup trucks should be tied down as well, as it is very easy for the swirling air in the bed to lift the tree over the side rails.
  3. Is the tree sticking out too far from the edges of the vehicle? Depending on the height and width of the tree, it can add considerably to the danger zone around your car. Be aware of branches that stick out on the sides and keep an eye on vehicle height if you enter a parking garage or travel on Storrow Drive, especially if you have a tall vehicle. As a rule of thumb, don’t have branches sticking out further than your sideview mirrors.

Negligence and Reckless Conduct

If a tree flies off your vehicle or you get into an accident because a window or mirror is blocked, it will generally be treated as a negligence case under Massachusetts law. In the case of the Sudbury driver, however, a stronger legal standard could be applied: willful wanton reckless conduct.

To meet the standard of reckless conduct, an individual must engage in an activity, such as strapping a tree twice the size of the family car, that he or she knows is potentially dangerous. You could find yourself facing significant punitive damages for reckless conduct, as well as criminal charges if an accident results in personal injury. No one wants to begin the new year facing litigation, so leave transportation of big trees to the professionals.

Sheff Law reminds our readers that the holidays are one of the riskiest times of the year for car accidents. Throughout the upcoming holidays, be patient, be courteous and don’t get behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking. Our team of personal injury lawyers is here to help if you have been injured in an accident, and you can receive a free consultation by calling us at 1-888-423-4477 or contacting us online.

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