Falling asleep while driving is an all too common occurrence. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), each year, more than 100,000 police-reported car accidents result from drivers who fall asleep. Of those, more than 1,600 cause fatalities, and more than 72,000 cause serious injuries. Because not everyone reports all sleep-caused accidents, the actual number is probably much higher.
According to a Farmers Insurance Company survey, “almost three times as many men (15.9 percent) as women (5.8 percent) said they had fallen asleep at the wheel. Those ages 55 to 64 had the highest percentage of any age group surveyed (13.7 percent).”
Stress, overwork, personal problems, long drives, alcohol, and medications are some reasons why drivers fall asleep. While many of those who fall asleep are lucky to escape accidents, there are still thousands who aren’t as fortunate. It’s usually just a matter of time before a driver who falls asleep at the wheel ends up causing an accident.
In this section, we address the following questions, and more:
- What happens when a sleeping driver causes an accident?
- Is he liable for the damages he causes?
- How do you prove the driver fell asleep at the wheel?
- Will his insurance company compensate you?
- Do you need a lawyer?
Liability and Legal Duty of Care
Any discussion of legal liability in sleep-caused car accidents must start with what the courts refer to as a driver’s legal duty of care. All drivers have a legal obligation to drive safely while looking out for the safety and wellbeing of others. If you violate your legal duty of care and as a result cause an accident, the law says you’re responsible, or liable, for the damages you cause.
The courts equate breaching a legal duty of care to negligence (carelessness). Examples of a driver breaching his duty of care include:
- reckless driving
- ignoring traffic signs and signals
- texting and driving
- driving while intoxicated or impaired, etc.
These are all clear examples of a driver not looking out for the safety and wellbeing of others. Police reports, witness statements, and traffic citations are all strong and convincing evidence and can establish a driver was negligent.
Unfortunately, when it comes to falling asleep while driving, proving the driver was negligent is much more difficult. Unless a driver admits he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into you, you’re going to have a tough time gathering the evidence you need to prove it.
If you were hurt in a car accident that you believe a sleeping driver caused, and the driver won’t admit it, there are other ways to gather evidence. Regardless of what happened, you’ll need some type of evidence to support your personal injury claim.
To succeed in a personal injury claim, you have to convince the insurance claims adjuster the driver’s negligence was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of the accident and your injuries. You do this by accumulating evidence.
In an accident caused by a driver asleep at the wheel, you may not have the luxury of having a police officer issue a citation to the driver for speeding, or arrest the driver for DUI. Instead, you have to rely more on circumstantial evidence. The more circumstantial evidence you have the stronger your case is.
Call the Police
A police report is often the foundation of a personal injury claim. Most police officers receive extensive training in car accident investigation. They can usually take a quick look at a car accident scene and within minutes determine who was at fault. Always call the police.
In many cities, police and fire rescue won’t come unless someone is injured or the accident scene poses a danger. If the police do come, they check if anyone needs medical attention and detour traffic away from the scene. Once they secure the scene, they speak with both drivers. They look for signs of intoxication or impairment. They check to make sure the drivers have licenses and insurance. Then, they separate the people involved and begin speaking with the drivers.
If the driver admits to falling asleep, the officer notes that in the police report. If the driver won’t admit to falling asleep while driving, the officers move on to the next step. They can’t force a driver to admit he was sleeping at the time of the accident.
When the officer speaks with you, tell her if you have reason to believe the accident occurred because the other driver fell asleep. The police also speak with any witnesses to determine what they saw. It’s always possible a witness in another car saw the driver nod off. After speaking with witnesses, the officers move on to the cars. This brings us to location and point of impact.
Location of the Accident and Point of Impact
Unless it’s absolutely necessary for safety reasons, don’t allow anyone to move the cars. The accident scene is sometimes the best evidence there is. In many cases, the accident’s location together with the point of impact can tell a story.
If the sleeping driver’s car collided with your car in your lane, there’s a reason the driver crossed over and collided with you. Unless there were gale force winds or an icy or rainy road, the sleeping driver will have a difficult time explaining why he left his lane and came into yours.
Look for skid marks. Although that’s usually done by the police officers, sometimes they just don’t have the time or manpower to do it. An absence of skid marks is evidence the driver didn’t try to correct the trajectory of his car. Look for broken side mirrors and lights on the cars. Look for anything else that tends to show the driver’s car had no logical reason for drifting into your lane.
Without a legitimate excuse, the driver is hard-pressed to legitimize his lane change. Of course, he may say he was putting another CD in the CD changer, adjusting the radio, or some other seemingly innocuous task. Regardless, in a lane change accident, the burden passes to him to prove he didn’t fall asleep.
The same is true for side-impact, rear-end, and head-on collisions. The location of the collision and point of impact on the cars is crucial. Establishing these two factors will shift the burden to the driver to prove he wasn’t asleep or that he had some other legitimate reason for crashing into you.
Photographs and Videos
Photographs and videos are solid evidence. Take as many as you can, as quickly as you can. Road workers or the police will probably clear the accident scene within an hour. Once it’s clear, much of the evidence will be gone. Photograph and video the accident scene with a camera or your cell phone. Make sure you include the point of impact and points of reference like lane markers, stop signs and traffic signals.
A video showing the driver’s turn signals weren’t on is evidence he didn’t give notice of his intent to move into your lane, further supporting your contention he was sleeping. If the driver is from out of state, make sure you photograph his license plate. A long drive from one state to another can make any driver sleepy.
If you can photograph the inside of the other driver’s car, look for signs the driver may have fallen asleep. By now, the police have already located any signs of alcohol or other drugs. If the police don’t come, you must look for alcohol or other drug evidence. Photograph beer cans and open containers of alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and certainly can cause a driver to fall asleep. Also, look for road maps.
Ask the driver how long he was on the road. Proof he was driving for long distances is excellent circumstantial evidence. Photograph evidence in the car that tends to show the driver was driving for an extended period. Look for:
- Road maps
- Out-of-state license plates
- Packages of No-Doz or other stimulants
- Used coffee cups
- Food wrappers
- Pillows and blankets
- Prescription bottles
Witnesses, especially independent ones, can help your claim. Another driver who stopped may have seen the at-fault driver falling asleep while driving. Speak with as many witnesses as you can. Get all their contact information. If any of them saw the driver sleeping, ask them to write down what they saw. It doesn’t matter what they write on, even if it’s the back of an envelope.
Don’t worry about notaries or sworn affidavits. At this point, it’s unnecessary and only comes up if someone were to later accuse the witnesses of lying. That’s probably not going to happen. A statement from an independent witness saying she saw the driver nodding off is powerful evidence and very difficult for the driver to refute.
Filing an Insurance Claim
If you live in a no-fault insurance state, you have to file your injury claim with your own insurance company. If you live in an traditional liability state, you file your claim with the sleeping driver’s insurance company. Don’t forget to get the driver’s insurance information at the scene.
When you file your insurance claim, a claims adjuster will contact you within a few days after the accident. Make sure you let the adjuster know you believe her insured caused the accident by falling asleep while driving. Tell her about the evidence you’ve accumulated and don’t hesitate to give her copies. You keep the originals. If the claim isn’t settled, you’ll need the originals for trial.
You can handle your personal injury claim without legal representation if the injuries aren’t serious. With sleep-caused accidents, you may need an attorney. An attorney can depose (legally record and question) the driver or cross-examine him under oath in court. If you provided your attorney with enough circumstantial evidence, he can ask the driver under oath whether he fell asleep.
If the driver lies, he commits perjury – a felony offense in most states. Most people won’t lie under oath, especially when it’s a civil case. It’s just not worth taking the chance of perjuring themselves. Their insurance company is paying the money. Why go to prison over money the insurance company will end up paying?
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