Multiple Pile Ups - Who’s at Fault & Who Decides?

15 February 2017

A multiple vehicle collision or "pile up", as it is commonly known, is one of the most frightening and dangerous types of road traffic accident. Pile ups often occur on dual carriageways and motorways where the volume of road users is very high and where speeds are faster. Whilst such accidents are thankfully quite rare, the effects can be devastating, with the largest accidents sometimes involving dozens of vehicles.

Who's Responsible?

So how do the Courts decide who is responsible for a multiple pile up?

The Highway Code states that drivers must maintain a safe breaking distance from the vehicle in front. Rule 126 of The Highway Code states that with regards to stopping distances you must:

Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear. You should:

  • Leave enough space between you and the vehicle in front so that you can pull up safely if it suddenly slows down or stops. The safe rule is never to get closer than the overall stopping distance
  • Allow at least a two-second gap between you and the vehicle in front on roads carrying faster-moving traffic and in tunnels where visibility is reduced. The gap should be at least doubled on wet roads and increased still further on icy roads
  • Remember, large vehicles and motorcycles need a greater distance to stop. If driving a large vehicle in a tunnel, you should allow a four-second gap between you and the vehicle in front.

Ordinarily, when a vehicle hits something stationary that is in front then the driver will considered to be responsible or liable for the damage and loss caused, and the Courts will usually adopt this approach.

Multiple vehicle collisions are more difficult to investigate as it can be difficult after the event to assess the order of impacts and who did what, in the face of multiple and often conflicting accounts. In most cases the police will be involved in the investigation of such an accident and much will depend upon their findings.

The investigating officers will usually prepare a detailed investigation report, particularly where there have been serious injuries or a loss of life. If the accident has resulted in a tragic loss of life then there will usually be an inquest by the Coroner. The circumstances of the accident will be investigated by the Coroner during the inquest, although it is not the Coroner's job to attribute blame to a particular person.

It can be very difficult to establish fault or negligence in such a case, and the financial repercussions for causing such devastation can be significant, but this can be difficult if there is a dispute as to what happened between those involved.

In such circumstances the person involved may want to instruct their own Solicitors to represent them where they believe they have a claim against someone else for causing injury or loss. Difficulties will almost inevitably arise where it is not known who was the driver that caused the accident or where the fault is to be shared between multiple parties. This is particularly problematic where an injury has been suffered as a medical expert may have to try and comment as to which impact, possibly amongst many, has caused the injury.

Quite often multiple vehicle pile up cases take a long time to complete, with multiple parties blaming each other for different impacts. Where no agreement is reached by the people involved the subsequent litigation can be long running and very expensive to resolve because forensic investigations and reconstruction evidence may be required. In addition, the injuries sustained by the occupants may be severe and may require substantial treatment and rehabilitation which can lead to matters being very protracted, often taking years to resolve.

The key is to slow down in difficult driving conditions, and to maintain a proper safe driving distance between your vehicle and the vehicle in front. Obey the '2 second rule' from the Highway Code and make sure everyone in your car always wears a seatbelt or is in an appropriate child seat. Also, keep your vehicle properly maintained, with brakes and tyres checked regularly to assist you in staying safe.

How are Pile Ups Caused?

There are many potential causes for pile ups. Such accidents are usually the result of adverse weather or environmental factors, such as fog, heavy rain or ice, but there are often a combination of causes, and frequently human error is a key component.

When driving conditions are difficult because of poor visibility due to fog, rain or smoke, not all drivers will adjust and will instead remain too close to the car in front. As a result they do not give themselves enough time to react to an emergency ahead and cannot stop quickly enough when they encounter something dangerous in the road, such as a broken down vehicle or a previous crash. If a driver fails to react in time to an emergency ahead of them, this can cause a pile up.

In other situations, the visibility may be excellent but the road surface has been affected by snow, ice, standing water, mud or other debris on the road. The result will be the same if one car has to brake or alter its course without any warning, the drivers behind may have limited time to react, and their vehicle's traction may be affected and they then collide into the back of the vehicle in front.

Likewise, cars, vans and trucks may be projected into other lanes, which may then cause a pile up on both carriageways. In other situations, a vehicle may be broken down in the carriageway or a stray animal may wander onto the roadway. But if vehicles are travelling too close together, particularly at speed, then the result will be the same: multiple impacts.

Drivers who fail to maintain a safe distance between them and the vehicle in front, sometimes known as tailgating, are more likely to be involved in a pile up.

Poorly maintained vehicles are another cause, particularly poorly maintained brakes and tyres. Tyres that are worn or do not have sufficient tread depth, or are not pressurised properly, do not perform as effectively in emergency conditions and will not be as capable of stopping the vehicle. It is crucial that car drivers regularly check their tyres for tread and pressure and to ensure that they are not damaged. For further guidance on tyre safety, visit the Tyre Safe website.

Pile ups can result in scenes of devastation, with a mass of damaged vehicles, fuel and debris on the road, making it difficult for other vehicles to avoid further collisions. Drivers and passengers involved in the collision become vulnerable to further impacts. Even if they are able to escape their own vehicle, it may not be obvious where is a safe space for them to go as other vehicles continue to enter the collision zone.

More often than not this dreadful scene of destruction is then affected by fire and smoke, which further reduces visibility and which can cause additional injuries and can delay emergency vehicles getting to the scene.

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