Narrowly avoiding a wreck with another car might leave you feeling lucky. But your troubles are not over if you looked up in the nick of time and swerved away from the other vehicle – right into a stop sign.
You are just as liable for the damage you do to public property as to another driver’s car.
Depending on your state, the bill for the damage you’ve done can reflect either the direct cost of the item or arrive “fully loaded,” reflecting behind-the-scenes engineering, labor and administrative costs.
Does property damage liability insurance cover me if I hit a guardrail?
You’ll have to pay for your car repairs unless you have collision coverage. Still, your property damage liability insurance — the part that’s mandatory in every state except New Hampshire — covers the havoc you wreak on public property.
If the state links damage to public property with a crash you caused, expect a stern-sounding letter in the mail within a few weeks, demanding payment or an introduction to your car insurance company.
With any luck, you will have enough insurance to cover the bill. But if your coverage is inadequate, you might have to dig deep into your pockets. In several states, the minimum legal property damage liability coverage — the last number when you see coverage expressed as 25/50/5, for example — is just $5,000.
So, if you carry the minimum, it might not be nearly enough to cover the damage, especially if it’s extensive or if you damaged something particularly expensive.
How much does fixing a guardrail, streetlight or stop sign cost?
Here’s what public property costs to fix, including signs, meters and fences and more, as of 2023.
1. Traffic signal: $3,000. If you happen to take one down a pole-mounted signal in Long Beach, California, replacement costs $3,000. If you also hit a traffic signal strung overhead, the Arizona Department of Transportation says the bill could be $80,000 to $100,000.
2. Parking meter: $700. After putting all the change from your car’s ashtray into a parking meter day after day, shouldn’t this be a freebie? Alas, Long Beach would bill you $700.
3. Guardrail: $889. The guardrail is only $50, but equipment and labor bring up the cost. For a basic, non-engineered guardrail replacement in Concord, California, this cost includes a city worker billed at $89 an hour and another billed at $73 an hour. It also includes using flatbed and pickup trucks, and materials such as wood posts, wood blocks and a guardrail end.
4. Streetlight: $5,342. In Concord, replacement of the standard 20-foot pole includes $3,000 for setting a new foundation and contracting out the work to erect the pole costs $1,150. Like the guardrail, Concord’s estimate doesn’t include extra costs if city workers respond after regular business hours.
5. Stop sign: $511. Like many bills, labor costs quickly add to the overall cost. In Concord, the sign is $50, but a few extra parts, some equipment and a maintenance worker billed at $73 an hour and a general laborer billed at $55 an hour increase the expense. Add in more money if you hit the stop sign at night. And no, you can’t install the new sign yourself.
6. Fire hydrant: $1,000. That’s the replacement cost from the Contra Costa Water District in Northern California. Some cities might try to bill you for the lost water, too.
7. Chain-link fence: $107 for 10 feet of fence. According to a report by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the average cost of replacing a chain-link fence is $35.73 per meter, though prices vary — a 10-foot fence would cost about $107. Congratulations if you damage only 10 feet of fencing, though. One Caltrans district replaced 1,968 feet of the fence — 600 meters — at $50 a meter. Total bill: $30,000.
8. Concrete barrier: $414 for a 6-foot section. Prices vary from $42 to $130 per linear foot, so at the average cost of $69 per foot, a 6-foot section would cost $414.
9. Roadside sign: $266. That’s for a small one on a wood post in California, according to Caltrans. It could be a simple “Turn Ahead” sign or a more expensive two-post sign that costs $620 to replace.
10. Orange barrels. $86.80. If you buy more than five, the price goes down to $78.10. But if you hit more than five, you may have bigger issues. Bonus orange-plastic buy: Traffic cones are $18.50.
Delaware News Journal. “What happens when a road sign gets hit and how much does it cost?” Accessed January 2023.
Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. “The cost to install smart parking meters typically range from $250 to $500 per meter.” Accessed January 2023.