How to Tell Who Is At Fault in a Car Accident

In the event of an auto accident, it is essential to know who is at fault. In some cases if fault is shared by both drivers. However, how do you determine who is at fault?

Police officers and accident investigators often spend a great deal of time trying to determine who is at fault or liable. Here are some of the guidelines they use in some fairly common and simple accident situations.

Changing Lanes

This type of accident happens when someone is merging, changing from one lane to another, or crosses the center line. Almost without exception the driver who was moving from one lane to the other is at fault. These accidents can be prevented by:

  • Checking mirrors and blind spots
  • Signalling an intent to change lanes
  • Judging distance between vehicles correctly

For instance, if a car is entering an interstate from an exit and is merging, it is the car merging who must yield to existing traffic. The same is true if a vehicle is attempting to pass another slower moving vehicle.

In almost all cases, the person traveling straight in the lane of a roadway has the right-of-way unless there is signage instructing the driver otherwise. Such cases are extremely rare.

One exception is if two cars are changing lanes simultaneously on a three lane (or more) roadway, and they meet in the center lane. In that case, it is much harder to determine who moved first, who should have seen the other person, and what measures could have prevented the collision. This is usually a comparative or shared fault accident.

Merging accidents can also be shared fault. If the driver who had the right of way sped up or intentionally blocked the merging vehicle, or is breaking the law in some other way (such as traveling in excess of the speed limit) they can be at least partially at fault.

As a general rule though, fault in these accidents is easy to prove. The key is to take witness statements and thoroughly document the situation to prove who was traveling in which lane at the time of the accident, and which vehicle had the right of way.

Backing Up

This one can be tricky. In most backing accidents, such as leaving a parking space, the traffic in the aisle has the right of way. However, since both cars are moving, there could be some partial fault for each driver. Also, many accidents occur on private property, so a police report is not available.

Most often these accidents either occur in parking lots or when one car is reversing into traffic on a roadway, like exiting a driveway where it is not possible to turn around. They either involve two vehicles or sometimes a vehicle and a pedestrian.

As stated initially, most of the time the person at fault is the person backing up, ane the number one way to prevent such accidents is to back as little as possible. Turn around in driveways or parking lots if possible, and back into parking spaces instead of pulling in frontwards.

This fault is usually simple to prove. Generally, whoever was moving backwards is at fault. Usually witness testimony and documenting the scene of the accident will make this obvious.

As with nearly every accident type, there are exceptions to fault. For instance, there can be two cars moving backwards simultaneously out of spaces across from each other. In that case, both drivers can be nearly equally at fault. Also, if the driver in the aisle or the lane the vehicle is backing into is speeding or not paying attention, there can be some shared fault in that case as well.

Remember, the key is to document the scene and get witness statements if at all possible in order to protect yourself and prove fault.

Rear End Accidents

This is one of the most common accident type scenarios. In most cases a vehicle is either stopped or going slower than the vehicle behind it. That vehicle then strikes it from the rear. Sometimes this can be a rather minor fender bender, and others can be quite catastrophic depending on the speed and types of vehicles involved

One example is when a vehicle stopped at a stop light or traffic signal is struck from behind by another vehicle traveling in the same direction who fails to stop in time. Another common scenario is a vehicle traveling slowly on an interstate or other street that is struck by a vehicle traveling in the same direction who failed to slow down in time.

This type of collision can happen for a variety of reasons, including the driver not paying attention, misjudging distance or speed, or that the stoppage or slow down happened suddenly, and the driver did not react fast enough.

In most cases, the driver striking the other vehicle from the rear is at fault. It is that driver’s responsibility to pay attention to the road and traffic ahead of them, and there are few scenarios where the vehicle struck could have contributed to the accident.

Of course, there are exceptions. Vehicles that turn in front of another vehicle or suddenly change lanes and then stop with little or no warning can share fault. Also, if the vehicle struck has brake lights that were not working, this can be a contributing factor, although a difficult one to prove other than through witness or expert testimony. Imagine trying to prove that brake lights mangled in the accident were not working before the collision.

Another exception is when a case involves three vehicles and one vehicle is rear-ended with such force that it is pushed into the vehicle in front of it. In that case, most often the driver who struck the vehicle in the middle is responsible for both collisons.

Most states also have laws against distracted driving, which is often the cause of this type of accident. If the other driver is ticketed for distracted driving, this is another way to prove they are at fault. As with other accident types, the most sure way to prove fault is through documentation of the accident scene and reliable witness testimony.

T-Bone Side Impact

Of the scenarios covered in this article, this is probably the most difficult one to determine fault, and often the type of crash that results in the worst injuries. A t-bone or side impact crash happens when one vehicle runs head on into the side of another vehicle. This can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • Speeding
  • Running a red light
  • Failing to yield the right of way
  • Distracted driving or texting when driving
  • Drunk driving

For example, let’s say Car A is traveling on a roadway and runs a red light. A car who has the green light coming the other way runs into the side of their vehicle. Technically, the car who ran the red light is the negligent one, as they broke the law, even though the other car struck them.

The same can be said for left turning vehicles who either fail to yield and are struck by another vehicle coming through the intersection. In that case, it is their fault. However, in the same scenario, if they have a green arrow, and another vehicle traveling straight runs a red light and impacts their vehicle, that driver is at fault.

Proving who is at fault in these scenarios is always about determining who had the right-of-way. At an uncontrolled intersection, traffic traveling straight has the right of way, while turning traffic must yield. In a controlled intersection, right of way is determined by the type of controls, from yield and stop signs to traffic signals.

While there are few exceptions, they all involve cases where the right of way might be questioned. For instance, if a car ran through a yellow signal and another vehicle “jumped” the green light in anticipation of it changing, there might be shared fault.

In other cases the driver might have followed legal signals, but traffic may have stopped for some reason, leaving them in the intersection where another car, also following traffic signals, struck them. In that case, there may be some shared fault, or even debate about fault based on whether the driver who struck the other vehicle was negligent by being distracted and not paying attention to the traffic ahead.

These are certainly not all of the types of accident scenarios. There are many more types, and each case is different. This is why it is so important to document the scene using photos if you can, notes on your phone or on paper, and getting statements from witnesses whenever possible.

Also be sure to get any accident reports generated by law enforcement at the scene just in case you need to take legal action or prove fault for any reason.

Contact an accident or injury attorney right away if you have any questions about fault, or think you are entitled to compensation from another driver.

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