According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a car accident occurs once every 60 seconds. That’s almost 6 million a year. Of those, almost one-third involve multi-vehicle accidents, also called multi-vehicle collisions or pile-ups.
All it takes is one driver who’s distracted for a moment to set off a massive chain reaction of cars, trucks, travel trailers, motorcycles, and other vehicles, all crashing into each other. With thousands of pounds of glass and metal flying about, the probability of serious injuries and death from multi-vehicle collisions is high.
Multi-vehicle collisions are notoriously more deadly than two-car collisions. In multi-vehicle accidents, several cars can hit one car several times from several different directions. Each vehicle involved means a greater and greater amount of broken glass, bent steel, and leaking gasoline. The possibility of fire is always a concern. If passengers can’t get out of their vehicles, there’s a chance they may burn to death or suffocate from lack of oxygen.
Those passengers who can get out of their vehicles are often in shock. They may be oblivious to other cars whizzing by only a few feet away from them. Moreover, because multi-car collisions often result in blocked roadways, it’s often difficult for fire and rescue vehicles to get to the crash site quickly.
Common Causes of Multi-Vehicle Accidents
There are multiple causes of multi-vehicle collisions. Some of the most common are:
Bad weather conditions often result in low visibility and slippery roads. Snow, ice, rain, fog, and smog are just some of the conditions that can quickly turn an otherwise safe road into a hazardous one. This is especially true on highways with high speed limits.
Airbags, heavy insulation, loud stereo systems, and engines that propel 2,000-pound cars from 0 to 60 in four seconds give drivers a false sense of security. At high speed, one wrong turn of the wheel or one slower car in front of another faster one can set off a chain reaction of bent steel, broken glass, and serious injuries.
When a driver falls asleep, even for a split second, there’s no one driving the car; it’s driverless although the driver’s foot may still press the gas pedal. It only takes a second for a driverless car to drift into another lane, careen off the road, or plow into the car in front.
Intoxicated drivers aren’t just the stereotypical, “I’ve had one too many” drivers. They also include drivers with altered perception under the influence of legal and illegal drugs. The side effects of many prescription drugs include drowsiness and altered time and depth perception.
No list of causes for multi-vehicle accidents is complete without including cell phones. Talking, texting, taking photographs, and checking email are some of the leading causes of collisions. Unfortunately, the majority of those cell phones distract young people. Many feel invincible and immune to the terrible destruction their distraction may cause.
High-speed police chases have frequently caused collisions. Although many cities now have restricted police chases to crimes involving serious felonies, there are still instances of police officers or the people they’re chasing losing control of their vehicles or other vehicles striking them during a chase.
Car stereo systems turned up so high the drivers can’t hear emergency vehicles is a common cause of accidents. Also, conversations with passengers, reading maps, eating, putting on makeup, and general boredom/inattention can also lead to accidents.
Determining Fault in a Multi-Vehicle Pile-up
Multi-vehicle accidents often involve extremely high insurance payouts. This is especially true when accidents occur on high-speed roadways and involve four, five, or more vehicles. In these types of cases, the amount of insurance money at stake climbs quite high.
As a result, insurance companies normally assign trained accident investigators to the claim. Because at-fault drivers will seldom freely admit responsibility, it’s necessary for the investigators to find the underlying cause and the responsible driver.
Duty of Care and Proximate Cause
Determining fault in a multi-car collision is a complex process. Each driver has a duty of care (responsibility) to the other drivers. That duty of care is to drive reasonably and prudently (carefully) under the circumstances. Not exercising this duty of care is sometimes a willful or negligent act.
When one driver’s willful or negligent act becomes the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of injuries to another driver, the injured driver has a legal right to compensation from the at-fault driver.
The more vehicles in the accident the greater the degree of difficulty the authorities have in identifying the negligent act. Who was speeding? Who was following too closely? Who was on a cell phone? Were there mitigating (explanatory) circumstances? Was there more than one negligent driver? And the list goes on.
To determine fault, investigators will:
- Review police reports and speak with investigating officers. The accident investigators are especially interested in knowing whether the police arrested or ticketed any driver for:
– Outstanding warrants
– Intoxication (alcohol or drugs)
– Open alcohol container
– Possession of narcotics
– Suspended license or unlicensed driver
– No insurance
– Failure to yield right of way
– Following too closely
– Reckless driving
- Interview the drivers, their passengers, and other witnesses
- Take photographs of the vehicles and the accident scene, including skid marks, damaged trees, guardrails, fences, etc.
- Review the drivers’ driving records looking for prior arrests, tickets, accidents, etc.
Local Multi-Vehicle Accidents at Intersections
Multi-vehicle collisions aren’t restricted to high-speed thoroughfares. Many occur locally at slower speeds. Intersections especially are hot spots for low speed multi-car accidents. One driver may stop at a red light only to have the driver behind him skid on an ice patch right into him. The second driver may push the first into the intersection, and then a car going through the intersection sideswipes it.
Comparative and Contributory Negligence
Fault can spread among several vehicles, including yours. Because most states follow the comparative negligence rule, each driver can receive compensation according to his percentage of fault. In those few states that follow the contributory negligence rule, any driver who has any fault may not receive any compensation.
Mitigation or Elimination of Fault
In some cases, the authorities recognize mitigating or eliminating circumstances. Although most multi-car collisions are a result of someone’s negligence, there are those few occasions when no one is to blame.
For example, on a snowy day, each car is driving cautiously and safely when one hits an ice patch and slams into another car, which, in turn, crashes into another and so on. Or, a driver may have struck another car after losing consciousness from a heart attack or other serious malady. In these cases, it’s difficult or impossible to assess fault.
Filing Your Own Claim Against the At-fault Driver(s)
If you’re in a multi-vehicle accident, contact your insurance company. If your insurance isn’t no-fault, you may want to pursue your own claim against the at-fault driver(s). For this, you need evidence of fault. If fault isn’t easily apparent, you can use the same investigative techniques the insurance company investigators do.
If you’re not sure who was at fault, you can file your claim against all the other driver’s insurance companies. In turn, they may help by doing some of the investigative work for you. To protect themselves, each company may produce evidence of lack of fault for their insured. However, they may decide to fight it out among themselves. Then, you can wait to see where the chips (evidence) fall and go from there.
Unfortunately, many multi-vehicle collisions end up in litigation (court or other legal processes). Because this kind of collision normally results in multiple claims for compensation, without clear evidence of fault, most insurance companies refuse to settle.
If the other drivers decide to point their fingers at each other or at you, it’s probably time to see a personal injury attorney . Most won’t charge for an initial visit.
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