Americans travel by car more than any other form of transportation. Our relationships with our cars are so essential to our lives, in fact, that you could say they’re part of our national DNA.
Unfortunately, car travel also comes with accident risks and results in millions of injuries and tens of thousands of fatalities per year on U.S. roads.
What causes those accidents, what steps can we take to avoid them, and what are our rights if an accident leaves us or a loved one injured? Those are the questions this blog post aims to answer.
Car Accident Statistics
Roughly 36,000 Americans die in car accidents each year in the United States, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Auto accidents also cause a staggering number of injuries annually—more than 2.7 million in a recent year.
These statistics make it clear that car accidents remain a significant source of death and injury in the United States.
Causes of Car Accidents
Some driver actions are much more likely than others to cause a car accident. Oftentimes, multiple unsafe driver behaviors contribute to the cause of an accident.
The following are common causes of car accidents:
Impaired driving: Alcohol and drug consumption impairs a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely and increases the risk of a serious accident. In one recent year, California was the leading state in the country for drunk driving fatalities with 1,120 drunk-driving deaths. Alcohol is not the only dangerous substance impairing drivers. Driving when impaired by drugs is also a serious issue, with 42 percent of drivers who were killed in an accident testing positive for drugs. The law dictates the acceptable blood alcohol concentration levels for drivers. These requirements are stricter for individuals under 21 and anyone driving a commercial vehicle.
Speeding: Driving at unsafe speeds puts a driver at risk of losing control of the vehicle and limits a driver’s ability to react in time to avoid obstacles or hazards. Speeding killed 9,378 people in the United States in one recent year. While multiple factors can contribute to an accident, speeding was a factor in one-third of motor vehicle fatalities in the last twenty years.
Merging: A significant number of accidents occur because of a driver’s improper merging, whether because of intentionally unsafe lane change practices or driver distraction. In fact, a driver’s failure to stay in the proper lane was one of the top three fatal crash-causing driver behaviors in a recent year.
Failure to yield the right-of-way. Drivers must be consistently attentive to what is happening around them and need to appropriately yield the right-of-way to other vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists. While this may seem straightforward, failure to yield the right-of-way is one of the most common driver behaviors that contributes to motor vehicle accidents.
Improper turning. Any action which is not anticipated by others on the road, such as an improper turn, puts everyone at risk. Improper turns significantly increase the chance of deadly t-bone accidents, in particular.
Failure to obey traffic signs. Traffic signs and signals exist for a reason. They are an important tool for safe driving, ensuring that everyone on the road is following the same set of rules and can anticipate each other’s actions. If a driver runs a red light, disregards a yield sign, or otherwise fails to obey a traffic signal, then it puts everyone at risk.
Distracted driving: Distracted driving can arise because of sources interior or exterior to the car. Distractions behind the wheel contribute to inattentive driving in three fundamental ways: they take drivers’ hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, and minds off the task of driving safely. Distracted driving often causes other driver errors, such as merging unsafely or failing to obey traffic signs.
Drowsy driving: Driver fatigue causes errors and car accidents to the same degree as consuming alcohol or taking drugs. Drivers should, but too often do not, make reasonable decisions about their ability to drive when tired.
Aggressive or reckless driving: Some drivers take actions that rise to the level of aggressive or reckless driving. In California, any individual who drives with “willful or wanton disregard” of the safety of other people or property is guilty of reckless driving. Reckless driving often includes actions like excessive speeding, weaving in and out of traffic lanes, and making sharp, unpredictable turns.
Car Accident Injuries
Many car accidents result in serious and often permanent injuries for crash victims.
Traumatic brain injuries: The force of impact of a collision can cause a traumatic brain injury (TBI), characterized by damage to brain tissue that often results in physical, emotional, or cognitive impairments. At its most extreme, a TBI causes brain death.
Spinal cord injuries: Injuries to the spinal cord cause symptoms ranging from numbness to muscle weakness to paralysis. Many spinal cord injuries are permanent, and saddle victims with major, lifelong expenses.
Neck and back injuries: Neck and back injuries often require long-term physical therapy or rehabilitation, and even then, many victims never escape the chronic pain and disability they cause.
Internal injuries: The force of a car accident impact can also damage a vehicle passenger’s vital organs, which can lead to long-term health complications that affect every facet of a car accident victim’s life.
Broken bones and fractures: Broken bones cause extreme pain, and although some may heal with proper treatment, others can require surgery and rehabilitation, and may yet leave victims with permanent disabilities.
Dental and facial injuries: If a victim’s face strikes any surface, dental or facial injuries are likely, including cracked or chipped teeth, damage to the jaw, or broken facial bones. If the injury is severe, facial reconstruction surgery might be required.
Cuts, bruises, sprains: Even “minor” injuries have the potential to disrupt a victim’s day-to-day life, cost them significant amounts of money, and leave them in chronic pain.
Be sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible after any car accident. In addition to ensuring your own safety, prompt medical assistance prevents the defendant from arguing that any delay increased the severity of your injuries. Keep all documentation relating to your medical treatments. This will be important evidence as you seek to recover damages from the party at fault.
Seeking Compensation for Your Injuries
To obtain payment for your injuries and losses in a car accident, an experienced lawyer will need to explore two fundamental issues: who owes you damages, and how much money you should receive.
Liability for Car Accident Injuries
A thorough examination of the facts and circumstances of your accident can enable an experienced lawyer to identify the parties who have a legal liability to you.
Every car accident case differs, but parties with liability can often include:
Drivers: The first place skilled lawyers often look in figuring out who owes you damages are other drivers. It is each driver’s responsibility to drive responsibly and to avoid causing accidents. Drivers who fail to exercise a minimum standard of care behind the wheel can owe damages to victims of any crash they cause.
Employers: If the negligent driver was acting in the scope of their employment duties at the time of the accident, then that driver’s employer may also owe damages for your injuries and losses. Generally speaking, employers must answer for the negligent actions of their employees.
Vehicle manufacturers: Vehicle manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the vehicles they produce meet minimum standards for safety, reliability, and quality. If a vehicle malfunction causes an accident or increases the severity of any injuries, the manufacturer of the part that failed could face legal liability.
Experienced car accident lawyers work with their clients to analyze evidence and build a case against the party or parties whose actions contributed to the cause of the crash.
Damages for Car Accident Injuries
Having established who owes you damages, an experienced lawyer will typically estimate how much money you have a legal right to receive. Because every accident differs, the range of damages available can vary.
However, in general, victims of car accidents can seek to receive payment for:
Medical expenses, including emergency transportation, doctor’s bills, surgical procedures, prescription medication, as well as reasonable estimates of future medical costs.
Lost wages and income due to injuries that force you to miss work, work a reduced schedule, or prevent you from returning to work at all.
Property damage caused by the car accident, such as damage to your vehicle or personal items like electronics or valuables.
Emotional distress. Car accident victims are at an increased risk of suffering from emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For victims who suffer from PTSD, the symptoms and triggers are wide-ranging. Any emotional distress can present a serious toll on the victim’s life and happiness.
Loss of enjoyment of life and harm to personal relationships impacted by the accident or your injuries, such as when an injury limits your ability to participate in favorite sports or hobbies, or prevents you from sharing time with loved ones.
Punitive/exemplary damages that seek to punish the defendant for acting with malice, oppression, or fraud. This is a high standard, but a lawyer can advise if punitive damages are justified in your case. In some DUI cases, punitive damages can be sought.
The amount of compensation you might secure will generally depend on the severity of your injuries, the strength of the case your lawyer builds, and the sources of money available to pay you (such as insurance or the at-fault party’s assets).
Why Car Accident Causes Matter to Insurance Companies
Virtually every car accident triggers coverage under some sort of insurance policy, most commonly auto insurance. All drivers must carry auto insurance on their vehicles that includes liability coverage to pay for the damage they might cause in a crash. Many drivers also carry insurance that protects them from the costs of injuries they or their passengers might suffer, for property damage, and against the costs of getting into an accident with an uninsured driver.
Insurance companies take great interest in who caused an accident because that usually determines which of them will have to pay for damages caused by the crash.
Most accident victims will have some interaction with insurance companies after getting hurt in an accident.
They will probably have to speak with their own insurance company to give notice of the accident and to ensure they receive any benefits due. In those interactions, victims should aim to communicate only the facts of the accident, and should try not to discuss who was at fault.
Someone else’s insurance company may also try to contact them, especially if that company believes its policyholder has legal liability for the victim’s injuries. In most cases, victims can protect their rights by avoiding these interactions as much as possible. They usually do not have any obligation to talk to someone else’s insurance company, and they can be sure that the insurance adjuster will try to undermine their potential claim in any conversation that happens.
Sometimes, someone else’s insurance company will directly offer a victim money to settle the victim’s potential damages claim. Victims should exercise extreme caution when this happens. Any offer made directly to them will virtually always fall short of the amount of money they deserve to receive, and if they take it, they could lose their rights to secure more money later.
Instead of engaging with someone else’s insurance company, the safest course of action for most car accident victims is to leave interactions with that insurer to an experienced attorney who can negotiate on their behalf and get them the full amount they deserve.