Freeway accidents are the stuff of nightmares. Vehicles zip by each other at a high rate of speed, no traffic control devices to slow down the acceleration. Nearly two tons on average of aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, chrome and plastic barreling down on each other at speeds just over 70 miles per hour. Using a rough estimation of crash forces, that’s over [4,000 lbs x 70 mph] 280,000 lbs of force sailing down the freeway. The real issue here is “Who is behind the wheel?” Is it a cautious driver who hasn’t had a moving violation in years, who is concerned about the well-being of others and secondarily cares about keeping his insurance premium low? Or is it an inexperienced driver, distracted by text messages, trying to sync his iPhone music with his car stereo, all the while eating out of a fast food container? You never know, and that’s why it pays to be cautious. That’s right, it’s not just about keeping your distractions to a minimum. It’s about being aware of the distractions of other drivers. Confused? We can say more generally that good driving is not just being a careful driver, but also about being aware about the careless driving of others. Some call it “defensive driving,” we just call it driving. How can we use this to be safer on the freeway, for both our passengers and ourselves?
Two Typical Freeway Accident Scenarios
Rear End Collision
The rear-ender happens all the time on the freeway. It typically happens because a driver is distracted, driving too fast for traffic conditions, and/or is following too closely to the vehicle in front of him/her in violation of California Vehicle Code §21703. Did you know that according to the CA Vehicle Code there is no absolute distance you must maintain between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you? §21703 only requires that you maintain a safe distance that is reasonable and prudent for traffic conditions. That being said, there is a “too close” and if you are cited by law enforcement for such a moving violation, it will cost you a fine of $234.00 and 1 point from the DMV.
According to the California Driver Handbook (which you will have to study in order to pass an exam for driver’s license renewal), a safe distance to maintain with the vehicle in front of you is 3 seconds, meaning that after the vehicle in front of you passes a point on the road, it will be approximately 3 seconds before you pass that same point. Is that realistic? While trying to prevent other drivers from cutting you off, cutting in line (to exit, merge, or turn), and/or beating you to the exit ramp, it is very difficult to maintain that 3-second distance. Right? That’s why the rear-ender happens so often. We sometimes forget to prioritize safety over getting somewhere as fast as possible. We drive so often here in Southern California, that we forget we are operating heavy machinery that has and can injure, kill and maim other human beings. So what’s the correct answer? Prioritize safety above all. Being late or being stuck in traffic is a small price to pay for keeping your fellow drivers and their passengers alive and healthy.
Sideswipe accidents are much more complex than other side-impact auto accidents such as the typical “T-Bone” accident scenario (where one car crashes directly into the side of another forming a “T” shape upon impact). In side-swipe situations, one car hits or “swipes” another car at a relative angle while moving in a parallel direction as the vehicle being struck. These types of accidents most often result from unsafe lane changes or driver error from over-correcting after swerving from obstacle(s) in the roadway. Who is to blame after such an accident? Sometimes identifying the negligent party is simple; one vehicle swerved out of its lane and impacted the side of another vehicle. Often times though, figuring out the at-fault party is not so clear, as in the case where both vehicles were changing lanes (into the same lane) and end up side-swiping each other. Who is to blame in that scenario? Well the answer lies in who started the lane change movement first, since the vehicle that occupies the lane first has the right of way. What happens if they both started the lane change at the same time? It may depend on who had a better line of sight to detect that another vehicle was merging into the same lane. These are the times when witnesses are critical, witness/passengers being helpful and third-party witnesses (i.e., witnesses who were not in either of the vehicles involved in the accident) being the most credible.
In clear cut cases, the other driver will be 100 percent at fault for your side-swipe accident, making him or her responsible for all damages (property damage and bodily injury). However, if both parties are deemed to be negligent, such as when both parties attempted to make a lane change at the same time and failed to notice the other making the same movement into the desired lane, the fault might be split 50/50, 20/80, or some other combination. So for example, if you are determined to be 25 percent at fault for the accident, you will be responsible for 25 percent of the damages incurred, meaning that your recovery from the other party will be reduced by 25 percent, practically speaking.
Usually, when a side-swipe incident occurs, one or both of the vehicles involved swerve away from the area of impact immediately after initial contact is made. This is normal and reflexive reaction to the force felt on one side of the vehicle; you will tend to turn away from it in an attempt to minimize the impact itself. Many times, as a result of this reflexive action, the physical damage to the vehicles involved are comprised of slight compression of driver/passenger side doors, surface area scratches and marks from where the vehicles made contact, chipped/dented/scratched rims/wheels, etc. This usually leads insurance adjusters to claim that any injuries to an occupant in the claiming vehicle should be minimal, because the physical damage to the cars does not indicate tremendous collision forces (i.e., there is no severe damage to the vehicles). However, as stated before, the minimal damage resulting from a side-swipe is usually due to the reflexive action of the drivers in turning away from the area of impact. That doesn’t mean that there was no injury. In fact, at Venerable Injury Law, we point out to insurance adjusters that these types of injuries may cause even more injury because of a “lateral” whiplash.
A whiplash injury is caused during a collision which suddenly and forcefully throws the neck and head of the driver or passengers in the vehicle back and forward. This causes the soft-tissue and ligaments in the neck to be stretched beyond their normal range of movement which in turn causes a whiplash injury. During a side-swipe collision, a whiplash injury can often be more severe, as not only is there a forwards and backwards motion (since your vehicle is often moving forwards when the impact occurs), but also a sideways motion of your head and neck. Your neck can be stretched to injury (1) to the front and back and also (2) to both sides. How does the neck get stretched to both side? Well it’s that reflexive action we referred to previously. That reflexive turning away from the point of impact is what gets the head and neck to extend laterally beyond maximal limits.
The insurance companies always try to minimize the bodily injuries when there is a side-swipe type accident. They simply base their decision making on the fact that “damages” were not severe. Our office doesn’t accept that kind of generalized decision making that is usually not supported by any evidence. We highlight the injury we refer to as “lateral whiplash” and we demand that the insurance companies acknowledge and compensate you for such injury.