Causes of Accidents & How to Avoid Them
By Joseph M. Ghabour, Personal Injury Attorney
The vast majority of automobile accidents are caused by drivers’ negligence. At least one of the drivers was partially if not entirely at fault, and could have avoided the accident by exercising greater attention and caution. Accidents, in other words, are nearly always the result of drivers’ mistakes.
In my years as a personal injury attorney I’ve learned that, while every accident is unique, a small handful of contributing factors show up again and again, at least one of which is virtually guaranteed to have been at play in a given collision.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common causes of accidents and how to avoid them. However, simply because you drive responsibly—avoiding these common driving errors—does not mean that another driver, acting irresponsibly, will not crash into you. But it does mean that, should you get into an accident, it will be easier to demonstrate that the other driver was at fault and that you deserve full compensation for your injuries and damage to your vehicle.
Cause #1: Excessive speed
An obvious one: driving too fast causes accidents. The faster we drive, the quicker our reaction time needs to be—the less time we have to apply the brakes and to swerve out of the way, and the less time we have to scan our surroundings, which whiz by us faster and faster as our speed increases. When we drive too fast, any errors we make in driving are magnified. A second of inattention is more dangerous at higher speeds—the car covers a greater distance while the driver is distracted. If we over-correct in our steering, we veer further from our intended path the faster we’re traveling. Excessive speed also contributes to the severity of the accident. The force with which two cars collide is a function of two things: their mass, or size, and their acceleration—that is, their speed.
What to do: Obey the speed limit
There have certainly been times when I’ve felt that the speed limit in a certain area was unnecessarily low, and I know that “going with the flow of traffic”—an important consideration, without question—can mean driving a bit above the posted limit. However, speed limits are not arbitrary—they’re backed by research and decades of statistical analysis. On the whole, speed limits are well calibrated to minimize accidents, but they’re only effective if followed.
Furthermore, if you get into an accident when you were going the speed limit while the other driver wasn’t, this fact will work in your favor, helping you to establish the other driver’s role in the crash and, in turn, getting you the compensation you deserve.
Cause #2: Drunk Driving
Fortunately, it’s now common knowledge that drunk driving is exceptionally unsafe, both for the intoxicated driver as well as for the others who share the road. When under the influence of alcohol, our coordination, response time and judgment become increasingly less reliable the more alcohol we consume. Drunk driving accounts for a significant percentage of fatalities resulting from automobile accidents nationwide. If you were to get into an accident while driving drunk, even if the other person was clearly at fault, the other driver’s insurance company would have an easy time defeating your claim for compensation.
Furthermore, the costs of a DUI arrest are great, both emotionally and financially. Emotionally, there is the shame of being arrested, of having to go to court, of dealing with the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), and of telling your family, maybe even your boss. Even if you decide not to fight the charges against you, your finances will still take a big hit. The initial costs are the fines, penalties and surcharges. There is also a program fee for enrollment in the alcohol classes and you will have to pay the MVC to reinstate your license.
What to do: Don’t drive drunk, and steer clear of drivers you suspect to be under the influence.
Of course, don’t drink and drive—that’s obvious. However, it’s equally important to give plenty of space to any driver you think may be drunk. Is the car weaving? Driving well below the speed limit? If so, do whatever’s necessary to safely get out of their way.
Cause #3: Distracted driving
Driver distraction is one of the most common causes of car accidents. What constitutes a distraction? Changing a CD, looking for a song on an iPod, tuning the radio, fishing around for something in the glove box, talking to a passenger—these are common sources of distraction. But by far the most common, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is the ubiquitous cell phone. Whether we are talking or texting, our cell phones occupy our minds, diverting our mental energy from the task of driving.
As you know New Jersey recently passed a law requiring drivers to use hands-free devices. Problem solved, right? I’m afraid not: studies show that using headsets in no way diminishes the distraction of talking while driving. In fact, research actually points to increased distractibility as a result of hands-free devices.
What to do: Hang up and drive
I certainly sympathize with people who like to talk on their phones in the car. Driving can be tedious, especially if you’re caught in traffic or driving your daily route for the umpteenth time. It’s tempting to use our phones to pass the time or get work done. I wish it weren’t so, but I’m afraid the research on this point is incontrovertible: cell phone use significantly impairs our driving and is one of the most common contributing factors to automobile accidents.
If your mind is driving along with the rest of you, you’ll be a better, safer driver. And this can have a significant impact on your chances of a successful claim. If I told you that two people got into a car accident and one of them was talking on their cell phone and the other wasn’t, what would you be tempted to assume? All other things being equal, insurance companies and judges tend to make the same assumption.
Cause #4: Driving while tired
Sleep deprivation slows reaction time, diminishes coordination, lessens attention and impairs judgment. Sound familiar? Too little sleep can impair drivers no less severely than alcohol. And, like talking on a cell phone, being tired—ranging from mild sleepiness to extreme sleep deprivation—impairs our ability to drive safely more than we are apt to realize at the time.
What to do: Sleep first, drive later.
Drunk driving carries a considerable stigma in our society, but tired driving—though equally dangerous—does not. You wouldn’t drive drunk, so don’t drive while exhausted. If it takes conscious effort not to slip into unconsciousness, if it’s a struggle to keep your eyes open, if you find yourself nodding off, however momentarily, then pull over as soon as possible, take a nap and then get back on the road.
Cause #5: Driving aggressively
In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray gives the following advice to his companion: “Don’t drive angry. Do not drive angry.” Aside from the fact that he’s talking to a groundhog, his advice is actually quite sound. In fact, the banner of “aggressive driving” covers most of the driving practices and habits that frequently cause accidents.
We all know what driving aggressively usually entails: tailgating, waiting to the last second to merge, cutting other drivers off, swerving across lanes, laying on the horn, accelerating rapidly, refusing to let other cars in, the list goes on. But the problem with aggressive driving extends beyond the aggressive driver. It affects how others drive as well, potentially igniting road rage or making others nervous, neither of which bode well for safety on the road.
What to do: Drive defensively
Driving defensively simply means being cautious, being on the lookout, so to speak. It means putting a few car lengths between you and the car in front of you—obeying the “three second rule.” It means using your peripheral vision, checking your blind spots, glancing in your mirrors, using your turn signal before changing lanes and—more often than not—it means slowing down.
Cause #6: Ignoring bad weather
In most accidents involving bad weather, the driving conditions in themselves were not the cause of the accident, but rather the drivers’ failure to take the weather into account. Inclement weather usually results in, among other things, poor visibility and slippery roads. First, the issue of visibility: the question is not whether we can see, but how much. The less we are able to see, the quicker our reaction time needs to be. Even on a clear night, for example, our visibility is diminished—our headlights cannot follow the curves of the road. What we can see is limited to the angle and range of the beams, giving us visual access to far less of our environment than we get during the day. And it goes without saying that rain, snow and fog significantly limit visibility.
Next, the question of driving surface. A slippery road means uncertain breaks and maneuverability, a dependable recipe for a crash. Contrary to what most people assume, rain and snow are often the most dangerous just after they begin to fall—the oil and dust that has not yet been washed away combines with water to form a slick layer on the road.
What to do: Respect the weather
Of course, the best thing is to avoid driving in bad weather, but I know from experience that it not always possible to do so. If you have to drive come rain, sleet or snow—or, for that matter, fog or dark of night—drive cautiously and take the appropriate measures. Respecting the weather also means driving far below the speed limit on occasion.
In the snow, defrost your windshield before driving, put chains on your tires, and slow way down. In the rain, check your windshield wipers, defrost your windshield and, again, reduce your speed. In fog, many drivers make the mistake of turning on their high beams in the hopes that they’ll be able to see better. In actuality, the intense light of one’s high beams reflects off the water droplets in the air, bouncing back into the driver’s eyes, further obscuring the scene around them. If you have to drive in bad fog, use your low beams and—you guessed it—slow way down.
Cause #7: Neglecting your car
There’s an old saying: a driver is only as good as his car. Though, in a sense, we could easily say the reverse, there’s more than a grain of truth here.
Of course, a car that breaks down on the road or highway might certainly cause an accident, but the dangers posed by a neglected car are often more subtle. As the condition of a car deteriorates, it becomes less and less dependable and responsive—tires can’t grip the road as well because the tread has eroded; brakes are less effective as the brake pads wear down; brake lights, turning signals, headlights and other warning lights can fail, exposing you to dangers arising from not being able to see, and from other drivers not being able to see you or tell ahead of time when you’re going to turn.
What to do: Take care of your car
You should continuously monitor the overall condition of all aspects of your vehicle to assure your own safety and the safety of others on the highway. This includes things like keeping the tires properly inflated, replacing windshield wipers regularly, and checking the oil level. However, most of us don’t have the expertise to do everything on our own. A simple safety inspection at your local dealer or by a qualified mechanic is an inexpensive step towards ensuring that your car is safe to drive.
Cause #8: Driving an unfamiliar vehicle
If you are at all uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the car you are driving, you are much more likely to make mistakes or drive erratically. And if you are not driving well, you’re more likely to get into an accident.
What to do: Get to know the vehicle
If you are driving a car you are not used to—a friend’s car, a car you just bought, or a car you have not driven in awhile—it is important that you take a moment to remind yourself where everything is before you start to drive: emergency brake, transmission, turning signals, windshield wipers, headlights, high beams, hazard lights and so on. To get an overall feel for the car, just grip the steering wheel and put your foot on the brake. Also make sure that the seat and steering wheel are adjusted properly for you.
Taking a few seconds to do this is especially important if you are used to driving a car with a different kind of transmission. If, say, you are driving an automatic when you are accustomed to a manual, spending a minute or two to familiarize yourself with the car can make the difference between getting where you are going safely and slamming on the brake in a frantic search for a non-existent clutch.
Cause #9: Trusting other drivers
Many of the accidents I’ve dealt with over the years have involved one driver putting too much faith in another. Think about making a left turn on a yellow light, one of the most common accident scenarios. The driver sees the light turn yellow, thinks he sees the oncoming cars decelerate, and plows through the intersection on the assumption that none of the cars coming at him will do what he himself has probably done on many occasions: speed up to make it through the intersection before the light turns red.
Other drivers will do what they want, not what we want them to do or what we think they’re going to do. They see what they see, not what we assume they see, nor even necessarily what is right in front of them. There are a lot of inattentive, inexperienced and plain ole bad drivers out there. And there’s only one thing we can do about it.
What to do: Drive like no one knows what they’re doing
I can think of no better principle to remember or any better advice to abide by. It’s part of the reason why we should put ample room between ourselves and the vehicle in front of us, for example. It’s the reason why we should always be wary of the cars around us—we may be driving in someone’s blind spot who doesn’t have the wherewithal to check, nor the presence of mind to signal a few seconds in advance, before coming into our lane. People make mistakes—that’s what causes accidents. But if we give them a wider berth on the road, we give ourselves a little bit more time to get out of their way.
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