Head-on crashes are the most serious of all car accidents. Although they represent only 2 percent of all collisions, they account for more than 10 percent of car accident fatalities. Even at slow speeds these crashes can be catastrophic. Victims of head-on collisions often incur astronomical bills for medical care, therapy, medicines, and more. They often can’t work for long periods while recovering from their injuries.
If you, a loved one, or a friend was injured or died in a head-on crash, you may consider filing an insurance claim or lawsuit against the at-fault driver. If so, this section will help.
Here are the topics we cover:
- Common causes of head-on crashes
- Types of injuries
- How to determine liability
- Gathering evidence to prove your claim
- Handling the claim yourself vs. hiring an attorney
Causes of Head-on Collisions
Driver fatigue and sleepiness
Driver fatigue often affects long-haul truckers, night shift employees, and other sleep-deprived individuals. A sleep-deficient driver is more likely to fall asleep at the wheel. His reflexes also diminish greatly.
Cell phone usage
Dialing, texting, and speaking on cell phones distracts a driver’s attention. It only takes a couple of seconds of distraction for a car to veer into oncoming traffic.
Faulty traffic signals and signs
When a traffic light is out, drivers must decide when it’s safe to proceed. Often enough, drivers turn in front of each other. When they collide in the middle of an intersection, cars bearing down on them may not see them until it’s too late. The results are often horrific side-impact and head-on collisions.
Some older drivers’ reflexes are slower. Moving out of the way of oncoming traffic is sometimes difficult. Confusion also plays a role. There are many cases of elderly drivers traveling the wrong way on highways, only to cause a collision with another car. Seniors have also exited highways on entrance ramps instead of exit ramps.
Collateral accidents often result in several cars “bouncing” off each other, with one or more cars getting pushed into the lane of oncoming traffic.
By far, the highest number of head-on collisions involve alcohol and drug usage. An intoxicated driver’s reflexes are significantly impaired, as are his abilities to calculate distance and direction.
Poor road conditions
Large potholes, broken guardrails, inadequate lighting, faded or nonexistent lane divider lines, and road debris can result in a driver veering into oncoming traffic.
Common Head-on Crash Injuries
Lacerations, contusions, abrasions, and scarring
During a head-on collision, “secondary” injuries happen when coffee cups, clipboards, cell phones, books, and other loose objects fly around the car at very high speeds and hit the occupants. Also, razor-sharp shards of broken glass, metal, fiberglass, and pieces of plastic can disintegrate and bombard the occupants’ scalps, faces, arms, and legs. Serious lacerations can also result in permanent scarring.
Broken facial bones
Eye sockets, cheek, chin, and jawbone fractures are common in head-on crashes. Even with airbags, the magnitude of a head-on impact is often severe enough to crush the face and its inner bone structure.
Neck and shoulder whiplash
During a head-on crash, the neck and head violently whip back and forth and side to side. Depending on the magnitude of the impact, the occupants’ necks and shoulders can twist well outside their normal radius. Consequently, tendons, ligaments, and muscles can stretch and even tear away from bones.
Back and spine
When the impact is severe enough, the disks in the spinal cord can excessively compress. This frequently occurs when the cars stop. As the car stops, the occupants slam downward into their seats. When the downward force is severe enough, one or more disks can herniate (rupture). In more severe cases, the spinal cord can bruise and sometimes sever, resulting in paralysis or death.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
The cranium (skull) can fracture upon impact with the steering wheel, windshield, and vehicle frame. When a skull fractures, it can splinter into the brain causing serious brain damage. Also, when the impact is strong enough, the brain can flatten against the inner wall of the skull, resulting in brain concussions and more serious brain injuries.
Although infrequent, and mostly in cases when airbags fail to deploy, decapitations can happen. When the impact is great enough the driver and occupants, especially those not wearing seatbelts, fly forward and crash through the windshield.
The courts have long held that drivers have a legal duty of care (obligation) to other drivers. It’s not complicated. Every driver must follow the rules of the road and look out for the safety of others. When a driver neglects to follow local traffic laws, drives recklessly, or endangers the health and safety of others, that negligence is a breach (violation) of his duty of care. When that breach results in property damage and injuries to others, the driver is liable.
Saying a driver breached his duty of care and proving it are two entirely different legal concepts. If you have injuries from a head-on crash, you must prove the driver’s negligence was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of the collision. The courts call it your burden of proof.
Again, it’s not that complicated. To prove the driver’s negligence caused the collision and your injuries, you must have a preponderance of evidence against the other driver. A preponderance of the evidence is a legal term meaning you must have enough evidence to show it’s more likely than not the other driver was at fault.
When you establish the other driver was at-fault, he’s then legally responsible for your damages. These include your medical and therapy bills, your out-of-pocket expenses like prescription and over-the-counter medications, any lost wages, and the pain and suffering you endured and may endure into the future.
There are times when evidence of fault is not so clear. This occurs when outside circumstances beyond a driver’s control contribute to a crash. When outside factors play a role in the crash, the law lessens, or mitigates, the at-fault driver’s liability by the percentage of the contributing circumstance. Examples are extreme weather conditions obscuring the driver’s vision, broken traffic signals, damaged stop or yield signs, worn away lane dividers, etc.
Your own contribution to the crash can mitigate the at-fault driver’s liability. If you had some fault in the crash, the at-fault driver’s liability may lessen by the percentage of your contribution. Examples are broken headlights, speeding, speaking or texting on a cell phone, and alcohol consumption.
Depending on the degree of your contribution to the collision, mitigation increases or lessens. This can affect the insurance company’s settlement offer. For example, an insurance company might say, “If you weren’t distracted by texting, you would have seen our insured coming and could have avoided the impact.” Or, “Our insured couldn’t see you because one of your headlights was out.” This might result in a slightly lower settlement offer.
On the other hand, if the insurance company says, “The police noted alcohol on your breath and found an open beer in your car,” or “Witnesses saw you driving recklessly,” they will offer a substantially reduced settlement.
When preparing your claim, it’s important to rule out as many possibilities as there are that might tend to show you contributed to the collision. You accomplish this by gathering as much evidence of the at-fault driver’s negligence as possible.
There are several, well-tested methods to gather the evidence you need to build a personal injury claim. If your injuries are serious enough to require hospitalization, try to find someone who can help you gather evidence. The road workers will clear the accident scene within an hour or so. After they clear it, valuable evidence can get lost.
You must act quickly. Don’t move the cars unless their location presents a danger for other drivers. Leave that to the police.
Head-on crashes will almost always require police and fire and rescue. Police officers will conduct an examination at the scene. They’ll speak with witnesses, measure skid marks, note damaged signage, and describe weather conditions at the time of the collision. They may also take photographs. Most importantly, they will indicate in their report who they believe caused the collision.
If the other driver violated a traffic law and received a ticket, the police report will note that, as well. Citations like unsafe passing, failure to yield, and speeding are especially important evidence. Make sure you ask the police officer for the service number of the report. You can pick it up at the police station a few days later. It shouldn’t cost more than $10.
Take pictures of everything in view. Use a digital camera if possible. If you don’t have one with you, use your cell phone camera. Photograph the cars as they sit and the point of impact. Close-ups and wide shots of the scene are important.
You can never take too many photos. Include traffic signals, overhanging trees, lane dividers, skid marks, road debris, and any bottles of alcohol in or near the other driver’s car. Make sure you photograph the driver and any passengers or pedestrians.
If a police officer administers a field sobriety test to the driver, record it using your camera’s video mode. Try and get as close as you can so you can hear any slurred speech or admissions of guilt. Also, get pictures of your injuries.
Write down the names and contact information of all witnesses. Make sure you ask them what they saw, especially if they believe the other driver was at fault. Maybe they saw him talking or texting on his cell phone.
They may have heard him making admissions against interest (he said something that isn’t good for him). Those statements are strong evidence of his negligence and culpability. They may have heard the driver say, “I was looking down at the radio,” or “I was on the phone with my wife.”
Medical records are crucial. Your burden of proof requires you to not only prove the other driver was negligent, but also that his negligence was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your injuries. To help accomplish this, it’s important your medical records make crystal clear the collision directly caused your injuries – to the exclusion of any previous injury you may have.
If your medical records don’t conclusively rule out a previous injury, the insurance company may say your new injuries are just an exacerbation of your prior injury. As a result, they may offer you less to settle your case.
Ask your doctors to write a medical report describing the treatment you need now, and the type of care you will need into the foreseeable future. This should include additional tests you may require like MRIs, CAT scans, and other tests.
Handling Your Own Claim vs. Hiring an Attorney
Soft tissue injuries like lacerations (cuts), contusions (bruises), and abrasions (scrapes) normally don’t require legal representation. In these types of claims, settlement amounts are sometimes barely enough to cover your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages. After deducting the attorney’s fees, there’s little left over for your pain and suffering.
Unfortunately, most head-on collisions result in hard injuries like broken bones, disk herniations, and head injuries. Hard injury claims like these often end up in court. They involve advanced legal procedures like sworn depositions (recorded statements), pretrial discovery (getting all documents from the opposing side), court hearings, and more.
The settlement amounts in hard injury claims are substantially higher than in soft tissue claims. You should always hire a personal injury attorney for any serious injury claim.
See an example of a head-on collision demand letter here.
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