Question: Can states close roads or restrict driving during a state of emergency? If so, would your car insurance pay if you were to drive and be in an accident?
Answer: Yes, states can restrict the use of roads during a state of emergency and even ticket you for being out on closed roadways. As for car insurance, it normally covers accidents due to drivers’ negligence or bad decision making, whether it’s running a red light or driving — and crashing — during a snow storm or other severe weather, or under some other type of public health emergency.
What is a state of emergency?
A state of emergency is declared to augment local resources when there is a public health emergency. Typically, this is due to severe storms and natural disasters, but it can also be due to “man-made” events, such as the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. By declaring a state of emergency, federal and local officials are better able to provide resources such as food, water and shelter. Or it can mean having medical supplies and medications more readily available. It also can help state governments get reimbursed for money they spend.
The president can declare a state of emergency for the entire nation, and they can also be implemented on the state level by a governor, or in some states, on city our county level as declared by those municipal officials. Each state has its own laws that govern what is defined as an emergency.
A state of emergency does not necessarily mean there is a travel ban, though one may be put in place if safety officials deem it necessary.
Rules of your state
State laws vary on what is required of motorists during a state of emergency (SOE). Some states request you not to drive in certain circumstances, other states order it.
For instance, Massachusetts says that if the governor declares an SOE, then a request for drivers to stay off the roadways, employers to release employees, and other such actions to promote public safety may be issued. However, these are requests and not orders by the state. Contrary to what drivers may believe, travel is not automatically banned.
If the weather is so severe that a travel ban is imposed, then drivers should stay off the roadways or face being cited. For instance, in Massachusetts the fine is up to $500 for violators caught during a travel ban.
New Jersey is similar in that an SOE declaration itself isn’t a restriction placed against residents’ movements or activities. But, depending upon the situation, the governor may find it necessary to go an extra step and impose restrictions for vehicles and drivers. And, if you’re on the roadway doing an SOE make sure you don’t impede official vehicles or else you could be faced with a penalty of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to six months.
In other states, there are emergency classifications beyond an SOE, such as a snow emergency.
For example, in Delaware when the governor declares an SOE he or she can also limit the use or operation of vehicles on the roads using the state’s a three-level driver warning and restriction system. If drivers fail to comply, they may be penalized. This system includes:
- Level 1 driving warning – Drivers are discouraged not to drive unless there is an important reason to do so. Drivers can be warned by police to get off the roadways, but no fine is assessed.
- Level 2 driving restriction – Roadway use is restricted to certain drivers, such as emergency workers. A violation comes with a penalty of up to $115 for a first time offense and a fine of up to $200 and 30 days in jail for subsequent offenses.
- Level 3 driving ban – Complete ban on driving except for essential vehicles, such as first responders, snow removal and utility personnel. Violation comes with a fine of up to $500 or jail time of up to six months.
In Ohio, local officials, such as a county sheriff, can declare a snow emergency and temporarily close state roads and municipal streets within his or her jurisdiction during severe weather. Ohio has three levels of snow emergencies that include:
- Level 1- Drivers are urged to drive cautiously because roads are icy and/or hazardous with blowing and drifting snow.
- Level 2 – Motorists should use extreme caution and only be out on the roadways out of necessity. Roads are icy and/or hazardous with blowing and drifting snow.
- Level 3 – All roadways are closed to non-emergency personnel. Drivers should not be on the roadways unless it is absolutely necessary to travel or a personal emergency exists. Those traveling on the roads may subject themselves to arrest.
In Ohio, drivers who fail to obey the snow emergency or hampers the order can be subject to criminal prosecution. It’s a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $250 and/or jail time of up to 30 days. If misconduct during this time causes a risk of physical harm to persons or property, it’s upgraded to first-degree misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or jail time of up to 180 days.
Car insurance covers accidents during state of emergency
Drivers who dare to drive during bad weather or a public health crisis are in luck, because most car insurance policies will cover motorists who make bad choices. Thus, claims resulting from an accident that occurred during a state of emergency would usually be paid, up to the policy’s limits, by one’s car insurance coverages.
Sarah George, insurance writer for finder.com, said car insurers won’t deny claims during a state of emergency “because people still have many legal reasons to travel.”
Melanie Musson, insurance expert and writer at freeadvice.com, said your car insurance should cover you even if there’s a travel advisory that recommends only essential driving. One caveat, Musson said, is if your area bans all non-essential driving.
“You would not be covered by insurance unless you could prove a legally-permitted reason for your driving. Practically speaking, as of yet, there are no laws in the U.S. restricting driving so much that you could realistically be ticketed for being out,” Musson said.
If you wreck during a severe weather restriction, your liability coverage should take care of other’s injuries or property that you damaged, up to your limits. Collision insurance coverage would take care of your vehicle if you collided with another car or object or rolled your vehicle.
What your car insurance coverages won’t cover is intentional damage or if you were driving against the restrictions or exclusions of your policy.
For instance, if your policy excludes offroading and you decide to go offroading in the snow and roll your vehicle or hit a hidden tree stump, then your collision coverage may not come to your rescue.
Car insurance providers also won’t cover damage if a driver intentionally causes an accident or damages their own vehicle. So, if a motorist goes out looking to wreck on the icy roads and that motive is uncovered during the claims process, then claims would be denied.
If your state has closed roads, warned drivers about driving or announced driving restrictions, I would advise you to be mindful of this and stay home if possible. Driving in severe weather can impede emergency workers and snowplows that need to be out on the roadways – and put your vehicle, and your life, at risk.