Backing Crashes Are a Product of Negligence Behind the Wheel.

Michael GrossmanMay 11, 2017 5 minutes

The dangers of backing crashes are compounded for larger, more unwieldy vehicles. Box trucks and 18-wheelers lumber to and fro in cramped neighborhood streets and pop out from parking lots and alleys--sometimes in reverse--endangering passing traffic and pedestrians. Tragedy can strike when the people driving these trucks neglect their duty to be completely aware of their surroundings. A recent accident in New York highlights this urgent need for vigilance.

What's an Example of a Backing Crash?

What is a backing crash? As the name implies it's a collision that occurs when a driver attempts is driving in reverse. These crashes typically occur in parking lots or driveways. The recent death of Lynbrook pedestrian Stephanie O'Neill appears to be a textbook example of this phenonmenon.

According to authorities, the accident occurred on Monday, April 24. Around 11:45 a.m., 80-year-old Stephanie O'Neill walked behind a 1998 Ford box truck at 30 Daley Place. As she crossed behind the vehicle it backed up, striking her and causing traumatic injuries to her head and internal organs. The NHTSA uses the term backover for an incident where a pedestrian is hit by a reversing vehicle.

The victim was transported by ambulance to a local hospital, where she was soon pronounced dead of her injuries. No one else was hurt during the accident, and investigating detectives reported no apparent criminality on the part of the unnamed driver. A basic safety check of the truck, including brake evaluation, was performed at the scene, but its results were not released.

Without knowing more details I can't say for certain, but it honestly seems less likely that the truck malfunctioned and more likely that human error was responsible for this tragedy.

So How Did This Happen?

Reversing trucks not watching all the blind spots

I know I've beaten this drum before, but people in all vehicles have a duty to use caution when they're backing up. That caution increases as a vehicle gets bulkier and harder to see around. From my own experience in that moving truck, it seems easy to focus too much on one mirror when backing up. Lining up a big truck with a small driveway is quite a challenge to a novice.

That focus on one mirror creates blindness to both the other side and the rear of the truck, which is effectively a completely obscured area to the driver at the best of times. The graphic to the right highlights in red the places that aren't watched when a driver is too busy keeping the truck from ruining someone's lawn or running up on a curb. Someone could approach from the passenger side of the vehicle and the driver wouldn't be aware of them. If they got directly behind the truck, there is absolutely no way that a driver would know about it until disaster struck.

The simplicity of this explanation means it's likely right--someone focused too hard on one mirror and was not as mindful as was needed. However, it's worth examining a few additional factors that could have contributed to the accident.

Looking at Some Additional Factors

Just because there's one relatively-simple possibility, that doesn't mean other factors can't be involved. However, even if this situation was prompted by an act of pure feckless negligence on the driver's part, you can bet your bottom dollar that the trucker's employer and insurer would do everything they can to turn focus to other elements to reduce their liability. We don't have all the details of the Lynbrook incident, but we can speculate about some of these "alternate causes" based on common fact patterns:

  • Time of Day. In many cases, pedestrians are hit after the sun has set. Combined with the reduced field of visibility behind the truck, darkness makes nearby foot traffic even harder to spot, especially if they're wearing dark clothes (not everybody wears reflectors when they go for a stroll). The Lynbrook accident occurred in the middle of the day, however, almost when the sun was at its peak. At that hour virtually nothing is hard to see at street-level.
  • Location. Drivers might sometimes claim that the scene of the accident was a significant factor. Had the truck been delivering or picking up in a largely-industrial area without much foot traffic, there might at least be a partial defense in the belief that nobody would be around. The street in question is in a residential area, though, so it's not hard to think that people might be out and about in the immediate area. Intuitively, extra caution certainly needs to be exercised in a place where people, including children, live.
  • Reduced Visibility. A reasonable person would consider reduced visibility as a basis for extra caution; the world behind him doesn't cease to exist just because he can't see it. Even truck manufacturers know the truth of this, which is why many reversing trucks make a distinctive beep sound to alert parties behind them that they're moving.

  • Situational Awareness. It's not asking too much to want the truck's driver to be responsive to everything happening in the area surrounding the truck. The human body in all its wondrous complexity is far too frail to stand a chance against a vehicle moving even at low speeds, and while there's an argument for the pedestrian also being cautious near a truck, only one of the two stands to be severely injured if they collide. If a pedestrian happens to be advanced in years, it drastically lowers the likelihood that he or she quickly darted behind the truck in between the driver's glances at the mirrors. It's not impossible for someone of 80 years to be that light on their feet, but it seems far less likely than the driver not fulfilling his duty to keep those around his vehicle safe.
  • There's No Excusing Negligence.

    We've spent a little time looking at the various ways such a tragic incident can come to pass. There's a variety of factors that could work in combination to create circumstances ripe for danger. However, understanding the mechanics of how something can happen in theory will never excuse dangerous behaviors that actually cause these crashes. Think of it another way: we know that alcohol makes it much harder to safely operate a vehicle, but we don't just shrug it off as a fact of life and say that drunk driving accidents are "just bound to happen sometimes." There's a blasé nihilism to that kind of thinking that anyone seeking justice can't truly agree with.

    We don't blame the alcohol for drunk driving accidents; we blame the person who drank it (and in some cases, the people who kept serving it to them). In the same way, we know that reversing a vehicle can be quite dangerous--particularly a larger one like a box truck. We don't blame the trucks for backing crashes, though, because the party truly responsible is the negligent driver who didn't properly gauge the situation before backing up.

    It is precisely because something is known to be dangerous that the law holds people accountable for neglecting those risks.