It's a common misconception that a driver who rear-ends another vehicle is always at fault. The popular belief is that the driver in the back is expected to exercise greater caution, given that they can more easily monitor the activity of the car ahead of them. This idea suggests that a collision shows the rear driver's failure to exercise an appropriate standard of care. Some even mistakenly think that this principle is prescribed by "The Law," that regulatory monolith we reference in hushed, superstitious tones.
Like essentially everything, the truth is a bit more complicated. Other elements can be involved in a rear-end collision; for example, the driver who got rear-ended could be at fault if they abruptly cut someone else off in traffic. If the rear driver doesn't have time to slow down in order to avoid colliding with his surprising new lane-mate, it's a little harder to immediately point the finger at him as the crash's cause.
It can actually be pretty hard to get a feel for the events of a crash with only the aftermath to examine, and it's sort of a given that participants in the crash might relate events that reflect a measure of bias in their favor. In order to tell the story of what the physical evidence says really happened after an accident, it's often necessary to involve an accident reconstruction specialist. An example of the kind of accident that could use such reconstruction recently occurred in southeast Texas.
Baytown, TX: April 4, 2017
Not much information has been made available to the public, but authorities say the wreck happened around 3:30 p.m. on Interstate 10 East near Wade Road. The circumstances of the crash itself are unclear, but photos of the scene suggest that an eastbound tractor-trailer hauling hazardous materials rear-ended a passenger car near an on-ramp to the freeway.
The car's driver, 71-year-old Janice Brown, died of injuries sustained during the collision. There was no word about the identity or the condition of the truck driver.
Looking at Possible Explanations
Until the investigation is concluded, no official narrative exists to describe the chain of events that led to the crash. It's pretty clear from the pictures shared by news outlets that the truck did rear-end the passenger vehicle; the condition of the big rig's front end and the decimated rear section of the car seem to confirm that. As with many such accidents, the question is really more about how the collision occurred--while some might regard the details as self-evident, it's bad practice to draw conclusions without establishing facts.
Some might think a personal injury firm would be only too eager to embrace the idea of the trucker being at fault. To the contrary, attorneys are most interested in revealing the truth of a situation. The idea that the trucker must be at fault just by virtue of being the rear driver in a rear-end collision doesn't hold water, legally speaking. So what else might have happened?
- An argument favored by truck drivers and their insurance attorneys is that motorists have a bad tendency to cut in front of large trucks without regard for their necessary stopping distance. The gulf between an 18-wheeler and the vehicle in front of it can appear awfully tempting to the sort of drivers that consider a car length's worth of progress to be worth any risk. With that in mind, they'll often succumb to the urge to cut into the empty space--sometimes without even signaling. I've seen it happen many times, and if I'm honest, I've probably done it a few as well. I'm certainly not proud of that; it's very unsafe to make sudden, unannounced movements into the path of a tractor-trailer, and the morning and evening commutes often resemble the chariot scene from Ben-Hur. It's not impossible for people to make such rash decisions while navigating traffic.
With that said, though, it's worth noting that truckers are sometimes "encouraged" by their employers and/or attorneys to suggest that one of these daredevils pulled precisely such a maneuver, and should therefore be blamed for causing the collision. When the trucker is the sole surviving witness, it can be somewhat difficult to take his testimony at face value, especially if the tale involves no accountability on his part.
- Just because the trucker shouldn't be presumed liable doesn't mean the facts will not eventually point to that. Certainly, one explanation might be that the trucker failed to adjust speed and/or course with respect to the vehicle in front of it. It's a straightforward theory, and one that the firm has seen play out many times before. Truckers have as many opportunities for distraction as normal commuters, but with the added hazard of a much larger vehicle. Smartphones, food or drink, adjusting a GPS, or something as simple as sneezing at the wrong moment could be enough to create opportunity for tragedy. Distracted by these or possibly something less savory like alcohol or drugs (we've seen many of those cases too), the trucker could have advanced too close to the vehicle ahead of it and didn't have enough room to slow down or stop without hitting it. Unfortunately, the truck's tremendous advantage in weight and size means that many such crashes have the same fatal conclusion.
- Traffic near entry and exit ramps take on additional elements of danger, since slower-moving vehicles are trying to merge into a much-faster flow of traffic. Highway drivers are expected to keep a watchful eye on these ramps and adjust their speed to accommodate new entrants to the lane. Many instances of merging are a combination of an abrupt entry to a lane followed by the need to immediately hit the brakes. In addition to that issue, there is much opportunity to miss an approaching vehicle in a car or truck's blind spot. The crash in Baytown may have been something as commonplace as a car's attempt to merge with high-speed traffic, coupled with the truck's fruitless effort to reduce speed and avoid hitting it. It wouldn't be my favored theory given the breadth of the damages present on both the truck and the car, but it cannot be automatically discounted.
How Do We Get the Real Story?
Establishing the most accurate chain of events is often difficult after an accident. No matter how much they try to be truthful, witnesses by their nature see the same event differently. The best and most effective way to determine the truth of a crash is to make use of an accident reconstruction expert. Through a careful examination of the known facts and the vehicles involved, interviews of participants or witnesses, and evaluation of the information recorded by the vehicles' Engine Control Modules (ECM), a reconstructionist can determine with reasonable accuracy the timeline of a wreck.
But don't the police already use these techniques when investigating an accident? Sadly, the answer in almost all accidents is no. The question the police are tasked with answered after an accident is whether or not a crime has taken place. While popular culture may lead some to believe that they're calling out the CSI team for every accident, the truth is that truck accidents are often investigated in the same way that they have been for decades. Police investigators are still looking at skid marks and tape measures.
I'm not trying to belittle their efforts. For what the community asks them to do, they're perfectly reasonable. Part of why the CSI team for every accident myth persists is because, deep-down, that's the kind of investigation that all of us would want in the event that something happens to us. While determining fault is absolutely crucial to many surviving family members after these kinds of accidents, what people really need are answers.
To that end, truck accident attorneys often engage reconstructionists to help assess the facts of an accident. While witness statements can offer some insight into why an accident happened, such testimony comes with the caveats and human fallibility that we all have. The physics of the accident are another story. They're without prejudice and unbiased. In many instances, an accident reconstructionist is the only one with the skills necessary to paint a clear portrait of what really happened during an accident.