Root pruning is nothing new. It is done more commonly than we think about for many aggressive perennials like lily-of-the-Nile, that like to disperse their roots into areas where we want to grow more docile annual bedding plants or vegetables. We might do it halfway, or more, around a shrubby plant during spring or summer if we plant on digging and moving it the following autumn. For most small and low profile plants, root pruning is sort of tolerable. The plants that we do it to may not like it, but it is sometimes necessary, and better than not doing so.
Trees are not like most small and low profile plants. Most are very sensitive to root pruning when mature. They are not so proficient at replacing the portions of their root systems that they are deprived of. Large roots that get severed are very susceptible to decay, which slowly migrates inward to the rest of the root system. Obviously, depriving trees of roots compromises stability to some extent. Because roots are below grade, it is impossible to know the extent of the damage caused by root pruning while it is being performed. This is a classic example.
The exposed freshly cut surface to the left in the picture above is not the stump of a small tree that was just cut down. Although it is, in this picture, a horizontally oriented cut surface of what seems to have been something that was standing vertically, it was actually cut vertically through a horizontally oriented root. Yes, that is it in the yellow oval to the right. It was cut because it was displacing the adjacent asphalt pavement, as demonstrated by the picture below. Rather that trouble us with this concern, the resident of the adjacent home cut the root of this mature photinia tree to protect his driveway from more damage.
The problem was that the major root that was severed was all that was supporting the tree. (The cut surface of the severed root is in the middle of the picture below.) The roots to the left and right of it may seem to be substantial in the picture below, but were mostly decayed stubs left from earlier root pruning. I was able to wrestle the stump out to dispose of it, without cutting more roots. The lack of other substantial roots is probably why the primary root was so big and expanding actively enough to displace the pavement.
The funny thing about all this is that I would have done the same thing. I would have determined that, although the tree would be very distressed by the loss of such a major root, it should not have been too terribly destabilized, and should have been likely to eventually recover. Even if it eventually succumbed to the distress, the loss of this mature but small tree would have been a better option relative to continued damage to the paved driveway. I certainly would not have expected it to simply fall over as it so comically did. The picture below shows what had been vertical trunks of the photinia tree that were quite horizontal after it fell over. The fractured asphalt pavement is visible at the far right edge. The top of the tree reached the center line in the adjacent roadway. I am sorry that I did not get a more amusing picture of it blocking the lane. I was in too much of a rush to clear the roadway at the time. This was something that I really was not expecting to encounter at work.