Driver Error in Auto Accidents

Despite efforts to improve driver safety, including graduated licenses for young adults, driver error plays a leading role in the cause of car accidents.

How Driver Error Contributes to Car Accidents

Most car accident litigation revolves around claims of negligence. That is, the defendant driver is not accused of intentionally causing the accident, but is accused of making errors or omissions in driving conduct that created an undue danger of an accidental collision.

Most errors that result in accidents are relatively minor mistakes that unfortunately produce serious consequences. Sometimes a driver's misconduct will be sufficiently irresponsible that the driver is cited for careless driving or, in cases that show indifference to the safety of others, even reckless driving, offenses that some states classify as criminal misdemeanors.

Common driver errors include:

  • Disregard of Traffic Control Devices - A driver's failure to yield at a traffic control device -- most often a stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light -- can pose a significant risk to other vehicles that have the right-of-way. As such accidents often involve cars striking each other in a perpendicular manner, such as in a T-bone collision where one driver crashes into the doors of the other driver's car, the risk of injury is particularly great.

  • Failure to Yield - Beyond traffic lights, yield and stop signs, accidents arising from a failure to yield often occur at unmarked intersections, entry ramps, traffic circles, and points where lanes of traffic merge. Not everybody respects the rules of right of way, or pays attention to merging traffic. It is important to exercise additional care at such points of potential danger.

  • Dangerous Passing: Attempting to pass another vehicle on the shoulder, in a no-passing zone, where the line of vision of oncoming cars is obstructed, where oncoming traffic is dangerously close, or similar passing conduct may result in a car accident, in some cases involving a head-on collision.

  • Dangerous Turning: Attempting to turn from the wrong lane, or suddenly slowing or stopping in a traffic lane upon realizing that you are about to pass a desired intersection or exit ramp, can be extremely dangerous to other drivers.

  • Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road: Although sometimes it is tempting to do so in order to pass stopped traffic, and sometimes people accidentally turn the wrong way on a one-way road, it goes without saying that driving in an oncoming traffic lane can be extremely dangerous.

  • Reading While Driving: Attempting to read instructions, road maps, or other materials, whether on paper or on an electronic device, while driving a car.

  • Use of Electronic Devices: Attempting to change a tape or CD, dial a cellular phone, texting, using an inappropriate entertainment device (such as trying to watch a DVD while driving), and other similar acts can distract a driver from the road and increase the chance of an accident.

  • Maintenance Issues: Poor maintenance of a vehicle, particularly of its brakes, can contribute to accidents. Drivers are responsible to make sure that their cars are safe to drive.

  • Vehicle Lights: The failure to properly use turn signals, the failure to properly maintain headlights, brake lights, and signal lights, the failure to illuminate headlights.

Although vehicle safety has improved, any car accident carries the risk of personal injury. Even with front and side-wall airbags, the fact remains that most car safety devices are designed to prevent injury from a front-end collision, and accidents may occur from any direction. Seat belts do not do much to prevent sideways movement. Dashboard airbags are also not of much use, and may not even deploy from a side impact.

Inattention and Distraction

Accidents may result from the driver's activity within a vehicle, such as their inattention to the road or distraction by their activity within the vehicle, or by the actions or behaviors of other occupants of the vehicle. Distraction may also result from the presence of a pet inside the vehicle, or from the presence of an insect, notably including a stinging insect such as a wasp or a bee.

Distraction or inattention may also result from factors outside of the driver's control. For example a driver may be suddenly blinded by the sun or by oncoming headlights, and be temporarily unable to see an approaching object or hazard in the roadway. The presence of a distracting elements outside of the vehicle, such as a brightly lit, animated billboard, may draw the driver's attention away from other objects or hazards and increase the risk of an accident.

Drivers are more likely to be unduly distracted from the task of operating their vehicles if they are tired, if they have consumed alcohol or sedating medication, or if they are elderly or medically infirm. A sleep-deprived person who operates a motor vehicle can suffer a level of impairment similar to that which results from alcohol or drug intoxication.

Road Rage Accidents

There is no question but that road rage contributes to car accidents. As road rage incidents often occur on highways and freeways, the accidents that result can be extremely serious, and can involve additional vehicles.

Accidents may result from an angry driver's intentionally dangerous driving acts, including:

  • Brake-checking: braking suddenly in front of another car;
  • Tailgating: pulling up right on another driver's bumper;
  • Intentional contact: Trying to tap the other driver's bumper while the vehicles are in motion.

Even when an angry driver is not attempting to retaliate against another driver, the driver is more likely to make mistakes while operating a vehicle.

If you are being victimized by an angry driver, try to find a way to remove yourself from the situation:

  • Slow down or take an exit.
  • If the angry driver pursues you, try to pull into the parking lot of a police station or a busy business.

If you are considering engaging in an act of road rage, you should also remove yourself from the situation, if necessary pulling over and stopping your vehicle until you have calmed down.

When an accident results from road rage behavior, even if a case may be made that the driver intentionally caused the accident, due to insurance coverage issues the accident will often be characterized in litigation as having resulted from negligent conduct.

Rear-End Collisions

In most jurisdictions, a driver who rear-ends another car is presumed to have caused the accident. In most cases, that presumption is correct: The driver at the rear has followed another vehicle too closely, or hasn't paid proper attention to what is going on in the roadway ahead of his car, and doesn't notice that another car has stopped or slowed in front of him until it is too late to avoid collision. In higher speed rear-end collisions involving a line of cars, such as cars stopped at a traffic light, you may see the initial collision propel the stopped cars into each other, such that three, four, or even more cars become involved.

The most common defense to a charge of negligence arising from a rear-end collision is the sudden emergency - that is, a claim that the car that was hit stopped suddenly and unexpectedly, or that something sudden and unexpected (such as a truck losing its load on the roadway) caused that car to come to a sudden stop, rendering the collision unavoidable. Where one or more cars are able to stop in reaction to a claimed sudden emergency, it is more difficult to make this claim, as claiming a sudden emergency will inspire the question, "If other drivers could safely stop, why couldn't you?"

Persons injured in car accidents due to the mistakes of others should consult a personal injury lawyer to ensure that their rights are protected and that they receive appropriate compensation for their injuries.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.