After a rear-end collision, insurance companies and courts tend to assume that the rear driver was at fault. Since the rules of the road require that a driver must keep a safe distance between themselves and the car in front, the rear driver should have had enough room to stop. Otherwise, they suppose, the driver must have been negligent or reckless.

But if you have been driving for long, you know it is not always as simple as that. Bad weather or sudden hazards ahead can create a situation where quick braking is not quick enough, and a driver hits the car in front of them despite their own best efforts. In a case like this, how can a driver show what happened in the accident? And how can they recover their own damages?

The Rear-End Collision and How It Happens

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report on crash data from 2020, rear-end collisions accounted for about 28% of accidents between moving vehicles. They tend to happen at intersections, onramps, and near business and industrial areas, where traffic is more congested and there is less time to react.

Another NHTSA study has shown that distracted driving is a significant cause of rear-end collisions. Distracted driving is now widely associated with phone usage, which can, of course, be extremely dangerous. But it also includes eating, drinking, tending to children and animals inside the car, or “driving-related inattention”—watching the wrong part of the road at the wrong time.

Common injuries from rear-end crashes include:

  • Whiplash and spinal injuries resulting from the sudden back-and-forth force in the vehicles.
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) when an occupant’s head is thrown against a surface in the car. TBI can also happen during whiplash by a mechanism known as a coup contrecoup injury when the forces of the collision cause the brain to be thrown back and forth striking opposite sides of the inside of the skull.
  • Bruising and rib fractures from seat belts.
  • Knee injuries due to impact beneath the dashboard.

Whiplash and TBIs can be more severe than an injured person initially suspects, with symptoms that may not emerge for hours or days. A hidden TBI can even become fatal. Therefore, everyone involved in a collision should get a medical exam afterward, even if they “walked away” from it.

Rear-End Collisions in Washington

Washington is what is known as a “pure comparative fault” state. If you are less than 100% at fault for an accident, you may recover your damages from the other party, but your damages will be reduced by the percentage of your fault as determined by a jury. This means that if you were 70% at fault for an accident, you would still be entitled to recover 30% of your damages. In practice, since few car accident cases go to trial, the percentage of fault is determined by insurance adjusters and then challenged by the attorneys for the drivers involved, if they retain any. The percentage of fault will form the basis of your settlement.

Traffic law in Washington forbids tailgating, stating that a driver “shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent,” considering “the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.” See RCW 46.61.145. An infraction for violation of this law is not proof of negligence. However, if a citation is issued, insurance adjusters will take this into account in making their liability determination.

Once the drivers’ insurance companies have been notified, their adjusters will review evidence and reports of the scene in order to determine which parties were at fault.

It’s important to bear in mind that each insurance company has its own chief incentive—to avoid payouts wherever possible and to minimize the ones that they do make. Adjusters and investigators will work to deny any payment or, at best, offer the smallest possible amount. They do this by a variety of strategies including trying to argue that the claimant is at fault, that someone other than their insured is at fault, or that an emergency occurred which can excuse the rear-ending driver of responsibility.

What Should You Do?

If you have been involved in a rear-end collision, your first priority is, of course, your own safety and that of others. Once this is secured and you have called 911, you can begin to think of how to address a future claim for damages. In the aftermath of a collision, you may not be aware of the extent of your injuries. Regardless of how you feel, seek medical attention as soon as possible after the collision. Do this even if you feel well.

When possible, it is wise to take photographs after an accident, capturing as much as possible about damage to the cars involved, the position of the vehicles after impact, the roadway and its condition, and any intervening objects. You will need the names and insurance information of other drivers and passengers involved, ideally with photos of their driver’s licenses. Contact information of any witnesses will also be valuable. Although the police should take a report when they arrive, they may not do so for your particular accident, or if they do, they may not collect the information as thoroughly as they should.

Report the accident to the insurance companies involved—but before making any statements about the circumstances, you should consult an attorney. According to a survey by Nolo, personal injury claimants with attorneys received a settlement nine times out of ten, and the settlements they received were much higher on average.

At Cascade Injury Law, we deal with insurance companies every day, and we will fight to maximize your recovery. Let us help you with your car accident—schedule a free consultation today. Call 425-654-8121 to make an appointment at our Bellevue, Washington office.