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Car Crashes


The first step towards understanding civil liability for car crashes in the Golden State is knowing what to call them, because in our society, words have power.

In 1997, the Massachusetts Highway Safety Commission became one of the first of some thirty agencies to shift terminology from accident to crash; in 2016, Nevada became the first state to make such a move. Later in 2016, the Associated Press followed suit, declaring that its reporters would no longer use the term if negligence is either claimed or established.


After all, according to advocates, airplanes crash, trains wreck, and ships sink, so vehicles should crash as well. To label these incidents as “accidental” implies that they were completely unavoidable by anyone involved, and typically, that is not the case. Other people counter that “accident” is proper, because the term correctly implies that the negligent driver did not intentionally set out to hurt other drivers.

“Accident” was first used in this context in the early 1900s, when some business owners referred to workplace injuries as “industrial accidents” to shift blame away from dangerous factory conditions and onto the injured workers.


What Causes Car Crashes?

Alcohol impairment is a factor in about a third of the fatal car crashes in the United States. This depressant slows down the nervous system, so impaired drivers cannot react to changing conditions as quickly as sober drivers. Furthermore, alcohol impairs judgement skills in such basic tasks like when to apply the brakes in time to stop. Finally, alcohol disrupts concentration, making it all but impossible for drivers to focus on more than one task at a time.

Many prescription drugs, street drugs, and over-the-counter drugs cause similar effects in drivers. The evidence is unclear as to whether or not marijuana impairs driving skills, but driving under the influence of cannabis is still illegal in most states, including California. In fact, the “drugged driving” law in the Golden State is very broad. In 2016, prosecutors charged a Fairfield man with DUI-Drugs because he was under the influence of caffeine; a few months later, Solano County prosecutors reluctantly dismissed the charges.

Excessive speed is a factor in another third of fatal car crashes. Velocity increases the force in any collision between two objects. So, in car crashes, a non-injury collision at low speeds becomes a serious injury crash at higher speeds. Velocity also reduces reaction time because it increases stopping distance. At 30mph, most passenger vehicles take about six car lengths to stop, but at 60mph, stopping distance triples to eighteen car lengths.

California lawmakers recently passed a tougher cellphone law to combat the rising tide of distracted driving, because this behavior causes over 431,000 injury crashes per year. At 55mph, most cars travel the length of a football field while the driver sends or reads just one text message.

Drowsy driving causes at least 100,000 car crashes a year, and that figure is probably vastly underreported. Fatigue and alcohol or drugs have about the same effect on the brain and on motor skills. In fact, driving after eighteen consecutive awake hours is like driving with a .08 BAC, which is above the legal limit in California.


Legal Issues

All four of these behaviors could constitute a breach of the duty of reasonable care, and Gagne v. Bertran is one of the earliest California cases to explain this duty. The court held that people have “a duty to exercise the ordinary skill and competence of members of their profession, and a failure to discharge that duty will subject them to liability for negligence.”

Minimally competent drivers obey the speed limit, focus on the road, are sober, are well-rested, and otherwise obey “the rules of the road” in the Vehicle Code and elsewhere.

If the breach of duty caused the car crash (e.g. Driver A hit Driver B because Driver A was speeding), the victim is entitled to damages. These damages usually include compensation for noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering, and economic losses, such as medical bills.

Many of these behaviors also involve a violation of the Vehicle Code or some other law; for example, speeding may violate Vehicle Code 22350 or another provision. In these cases, victims only need to prove cause, thanks to the negligence per se rule. Drivers are liable for damages as a matter of law if:

  • They violated a law, and
  • That violation substantially caused the victim’s damages.

In many extreme negligence per se cases, such as drivers with a high BAC or reckless drivers, additional punitive damages may be available as well.


Credit: Pexels

The large majority of us will be lucky enough to go through life without ever coming close to a serious car accident. However, these things can and do happen, and it can really pay off to be familiar with some of the major risk factors involved in crashes. Once you’ve been driving for a few years, it can be easy to slip into a state of apathy, and forget all about some very serious hazards…


File:Ferrari speeding @ Piazza Duomo.jpg

Credit: Wikimedia

You’ve almost certainly seen a speed freak tear past you on the highway from time to time, and may have even been one yourself occasionally. A lot of drivers, feeling way too confident in their abilities, will totally overlook the speed limit, and break it by ten, twenty, or even thirty miles per hour! Your speed will make it much harder to react to the conditions around you, and significantly increase your odds of getting involved in an accident. Make sure you’re paying attention to the speed limit, and sticking to it religiously. Just a few seconds can make all the difference when you need to avoid a collision.

Distracted Driving

This is one of the biggest dangers facing modern drivers today, especially as so many people overlook it! When you’re driving, reaching out for some food, replying to a message on your phone, or even getting too wrapped up in a conversation can increase your risk of a crash massively. Talk to any truck accident lawyer, and they’ll tell you that a massive proportion of the cases they have to deal with could have been prevented if one of the drivers hadn’t been distracted. Whenever you set off in your car, make sure you eliminate any kind of distractions that could pose a risk.

Reckless Driving

Although this is a term that’s thrown around by law enforcement all over the world, it’s a pretty broad one that can cover a lot of things. Reckless driving is any instance of a driver neglecting the kind of care they need to exercise at the wheel, and ignoring the traffic conditions around them. Speeding, changing lanes too abruptly, and tailgating are all examples of reckless driving. This kind of behaviour is usually rooted in road rage and impatience. If you bring an attitude out on the road with you, try to work on it!

Catching the Light

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Credit: Wikimedia

Red means stop, green means go. Although this is so simple a child can grasp it, a lot of drivers try to save themselves a few milliseconds by stepping on the gas and trying to catch a green light before it turns red. You may be able to get away with this unscathed hundreds or even thousands of times. However, when your luck runs out, the consequences can be dire. Drivers who run red lights at intersections are often the cause of side-on collisions or “T-bones”, which are one of the most dangerous forms of collision that can happen between two vehicles. If you’ve got enough distance to stop safely, then do it!