A car accident, also referred to as a “traffic collision,” or a “motor vehicle accident,” occurs when a motor vehicle strikes or collides another vehicle, a stationary object, a pedestrian, or an animal. While some car accidents result only in property damage, others result in severe injuries or death. There are many factors that can contribute to car accidents, and sometimes such accidents have legal consequences. To explore this concept, consider the following car accident definition.
Definition of Car Accident
- A collision that occurs when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, a stationary object, a pedestrian, or an animal.
What is a Car Accident
A car accident takes place when a car, truck, or bus, or other motorized vehicle hits another vehicle, person, or object, such as a tree or power pole. Car accidents have serious consequences including property damage, injury, and death, all of which are likely to cost someone a lot of money. When an individual causes a car accident in the United States, he may be held liable for damages and injuries caused by the wreck.
When a person is involved in a car accident in the United States, they may be held liable for any damages or injuries that occur as a result. Traffic laws vary by jurisdiction, and a driver who causes an accident by violating any of these laws, is usually determined to be at-fault for the accident, and held liable for damages.
Sam is following a slow-moving vehicle down a country road. When he has an opportunity to safely pass the vehicle, Sam changes lanes to pass on the left-hand side of the road. As Sam approaches, the other vehicle suddenly swerves left into the oncome land, right in front of Sam, and he slams into the rear of the car. The elderly couple in the other car have suffered minor injuries, and Sam is worried that he will be liable, as he rear-ended the other car.
Police investigating the accident, however, determine that the elderly driver swerved to miss a pothole, changing lanes suddenly and without warning. This is considered to be an unsafe lane change, and is illegal. Therefore, the elderly driver is determined to be at fault for the accident.
Common Causes of Car Accidents
There are virtually an unlimited number of causes of car accidents. Weather and road conditions are a common cause of many car accidents, but many accidents are caused by failure of a driver to keep his attention to the road, and operation of his vehicle. Understanding the factors that contribute to car accidents can help drivers avoid them. Some of the most common causes of car accidents include:
- Speeding – Failure to follow the legal speed limit is perhaps one of the leading causes of car accidents that occur within the United States. Driving faster than what is considered safe for the road conditions is considered speeding, regardless of the posted speed limit.
- Using a Device – Texting or talking while driving, or even playing with a phone, music player, or GPS device, increases the level of danger on the road, as drivers become distracted. Many states have begun passing laws prohibiting phone use while driving, and some have expanded these “cell phone laws” to include any distracting activity. These are called “distracted driving laws.”
- Driver Fatigue – Driving while extremely tired can lead to falling into a trans-like state, or even falling asleep at the wheel. When a driver nods off or falls asleep, there is a very high chance of becoming involved in a car accident.
- Drunk Driving – Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is dangerous, and often fatal. Drinking and driving, increases the probability of causing a car accident is increased by 900% over other drivers.
- Defective Auto Parts – When a part on a vehicle is defective or goes bad, it can cause the vehicle to operate in an unsafe manner. Common defects include brake issues, defects in tires, defective air bags, top-heavy design, and more. When an accident does occur, defective safety features can increase the chance of serious injury or death.
- Rubbernecking – Drivers looking at things along the roadway, such as sunsets, traffic accidents, flashy billboards, and other things, are distracted, and commonly cause accidents.
- Poor Weather Conditions – Weather conditions that leave the roadway wet or icy, or reduce visibility, pose a danger to vehicles on the road, and require drivers to pay extra attention, and to slow down. High winds, blowing dust, fog, and torrential downpours are common causes of accidents.
Liability for a Car Accident
Liability for a car accident is determined by many factors, including the specific circumstances that led to the accident, and whether one of the drivers violated any traffic laws. For example, if John is speeding or runs a red light and strikes Mary’s car due to his negligence, he is likely to be found liable for the damages or injuries that occur.
Some states use the concept of comparative negligence. This is a system in which both parties to an accident are considered to have been at least partially at fault, and the court assigns each party a percentage of fault. The drivers would then be liable for a percentage of the total damages, equal to the percentage of fault assigned.
Jacob is speeding on his way to work, going 50 mpg in a 30 mph speed zone. Richard runs a stop sign just as Jacob sails through the intersection, and the two cars collide. In court, as both parties are attempting to collect damages for repairs to their vehicles, and medical bills, the court determines that Jacob is 40 percent at fault, and Richard 60 percent at fault for the collision. The court also determines there are total losses in the amount of $10,000. Jacob would be responsible for $4,000, and Richard for $6,000. Once Jacob’s amount is taken into consideration, Richard owes Jacob $2,000.
Penalties for Car Accidents
A driver who causes a car accident may face civil and criminal penalties, depending on the circumstances. Accidents caused by a driver’s negligence, such as failing to look before backing out of a parking stall, reaching for something that fell off the seat, or failing to reduce speed when the road is wet, commonly subject the driver to civil penalties, when the other driver files a civil lawsuit.
A driver who causes an accident by breaking certain traffic laws, or when driving under the influence, may face criminal charges. Penalties for conviction of criminal charges may include arrest, fines, jail or prison time, and a suspended license. If another person dies as a result of the accident, the accused driver may be charged with vehicular manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter, which carry harsher penalties.
In addition to criminal prosecution, such a driver will likely face a civil lawsuit as well. The victim of a car accident can file a civil lawsuit seeking damages for loss of property, injuries, loss of earnings, and more. If the victim died as a result of the accident, his family can file a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. This allows a surviving family member sue the at-fault driver to receive compensation.
What to Do After a Car Accident
It is not uncommon for a driver in a car accident to panic, or not know what to do. When injuries occur, emotions run high, and the people involved often forget to take important steps. It is vital for drivers to know what to do after a car accident, to prevent further injuries, and to avoid breaking the law. After a car accident, all drivers involved should do the following:
- Remain at the Scene – all drivers involved in a car accident should remain at the scene until police say it’s ok to leave. In some jurisdictions, police do not respond to car accidents in which nobody is injured, so drivers are required to pull over to a safe place, exchange insurance and contact information, and go their ways. Leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident without exchanging information is a crime.
- Check for Injuries – check to be sure everyone involved is uninjured. If anyone is injured, call 9-1-1 for help. Do not move injured parties, as this may cause more injuries. Once the police do arrive, ask to file a police report in case the insurance companies or the courts need it.
- Collect Information – all drivers should gather the names, addresses, phone numbers, and insurance information from all other drivers involved. It is also a good idea to take a picture of the other driver’s license, and license plate. Additionally, it is a good idea to gather contact information from witnesses to the accident.
- Take Photos – once everyone is safe, it is a good idea to take pictures of all vehicles involved, as well as the area where the accident occurred. Emergency authorities in most jurisdictions prefer that, if there are no injuries, the drivers move the vehicles to a safe place nearby, such as a wide shoulder or a parking lot.
- Make an Insurance Report – as soon as possible after the accident, all drivers should notify their insurance companies of the accident. The insurance company will inform their insured of the next steps to follow.
- Gather Bills and Repair Estimates – it is important to keep track of expenses related to property damages and injuries caused by the accident. This includes obtaining medical bills, written estimates or receipts for damage repair, and other documentation.
- Obtain Counsel – in some cases, especially if there are injuries or a great deal of property damage, the hiring of an experienced attorney is recommended. This is especially true if a driver faces criminal charges related to the accident.
Car Accident Statistics
Car accidents are a common occurrence, accounting for over $230 billion in losses every year in the U.S. A number of agencies and organizations track car accident statistics, using the information to help prevent accidents, and to improve safety of drivers and passengers involved in accidents, through improvements to automobiles and roads.
According to a 2014 study by the Association for Safety International Road Travel:
- Over 37,000 people in the U.S. die in car accidents each year. This averages out to about 101 fatalities per day.
- Each year, an additional 2.35 million people are seriously injured or disabled as the result of car accidents. This averages out to about 5,500 per day.
- Car crashes are the single most common cause of death among healthy U.S. citizens.
- Over 1,600 children under the age of 15 die each year in car accidents in the United States.
Fire Chief Using Cell Phone Causes Fatal Accident
In 2012, San Bernardino County, California, fire chief, Timothy McClelland, was driving along the highway when he struck another vehicle from behind, killing its driver, Gregory Kirwin. Witnesses reported to police that the defendant was texting while driving, though he argued that this was not true. He claimed that he was looking to change lanes and saw debris in the road. He was unable to move past the debris and rear-ended Kirwin. McClelland was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence.
A guardian ad litem attorney filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s daughters, who were ages four and seven at the time of the accident. Because McClelland was in a state-owned vehicle, the state of California was named in the lawsuit, and the legislature approved a $15 million settlement to be paid from the state’s reserve funds, placed into a trust for the two young girls.
The criminal charges against McClelland arose after the civil settlement. According to California laws, a plaintiff can choose to have a civil settlement satisfy misdemeanor charges. The guardian ad litem, as representative plaintiff for the girls, agreed to this and the judgment replaced the criminal charges. The victim’s sister, however, disputed this. She claimed that the girls were too young to approve of the dismissal of charges, and that money is not an adequate punishment, especially as it was paid by the state, not the man who caused the accident. As of October 2015, the charges are still pending.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Criminal Charges – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- Guardian ad Litem – A legal guardian appointed by the court to represent the interests of a child or incompetent adult in a legal action.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
- Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.
- Wrongful Death – The death of an individual caused by the willful or negligent actions of another person.