Head-on collisions across the country are responsible for more than 10 percent of all fatal accidents, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs also causes more than 10 percent of traffic accident deaths, and receives a great deal of justifiable attention as a serious public health and safety issue. Head-on truck crashes are equally dangerous, but are subject to far less of a spotlight.
This is partly because head-on crashes have many different causes. There is, for example, evidence that they are more frequent in rural areas than in urban areas. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 13 percent of head-on collisions occur in rural areas, while only 7 percent occur in urban ones. The reason may be that veering out of a single lane on a narrow, two-way road or trying to pass on a two-way road are two of the leading causes of head-on collisions. These roads are more common in rural areas than in urban ones.
Regardless of the cause of a truck accident, head-on collisions are one of the most dangerous truck accident types—especially when an 80,000-pound 18-wheeler slams directly into a car, motorcycle, or pedestrian. Catastrophic injuries are bound to result, especially at high speeds.
While vehicle occupants are somewhat protected by their front bumper, bumpers also crumple relatively easily if the crash occurs at high speeds. In addition, there is always someone sitting in the front seat: the driver. In a rear-end crash, by contrast, there may be no occupant in the back seat. But the driver and any front-seat passengers are always in a position to receive the brunt of a head-on collision.
Head-on truck collisions are also frightening, even traumatizing. All vehicle accidents, of course, are scary and stressful. But drivers in head-on collisions may see a massive vehicle bearing down on them; drivers in rear-end and side collisions may not see the other vehicle until the impact occurs. The sight of a big rig heading directly toward them may cause drivers to freeze and lessen the possibility that they can avoid the fast-approaching accident even if that is possible.
But many factors can cause head-on truck collisions. Let’s review some of the most common.
What Causes a Head-On Collision?
Driving the Wrong Way
One of the chief causes of head-on collisions is a driver going the wrong way down a road or traffic lane. This can occur, as indicated above, if the truck driver is trying to pass another vehicle on a two-way road without checking sufficiently to see if another vehicle is coming or because they have underestimated the speed at which another vehicle is approaching. Truck drivers on two-way roads can also cross over the center line and be in the wrong lane as another car is approaching. Truck drivers may also drive the wrong way on exit and entrance ramps to freeways or make a wrong turn and head the wrong way on a multilane road or freeway.
Multiple factors can cause a truck driver to go the wrong way. It may be drowsiness or fatigue. A truck driver who nods off for even a few moments can veer into another lane without realizing it. Drowsy driving is a major factor in accidents across the country. The NHTSA estimates that up to 6,000 accidents annually may be caused by drowsy driving. Four percent of all drivers in one study reported that they had fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous 30 days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alcohol or drug impairment can also make a truck driver inattentive enough to go the wrong way without realizing it. Another widespread problem in driving—distraction—can cause a truck driver to enter the wrong lane or drive the wrong way up a freeway on-ramp. Truck drivers distracted by anything for just five seconds while going 55 miles per hour cover the length of a football field without paying attention, according to the NHTSA.
While many people associate distracted driving with texting or smartphone use, anything that causes you to take your eyes or attention from the road is distracted driving. Reaching for food or a map or an old-fashioned CB radio can cause a truck driver to inadvertently enter the wrong lane or ramp.
Crossing the Centerline
No matter how many lanes there are on a given roadway, a centerline or divider usually separates opposite streams of traffic. Head-on collisions can occur any time truck drivers cross the centerline.
This type of crash can also occur if the truck driver is drowsy or asleep, driving while impaired, or driving distracted. But factors such as a medical emergency can also cause them. If a truck driver has a heart attack and loses consciousness, for example, they can lose control of their vehicle and veer over the centerline.
In some cases, lanes may not be demarcated properly or the demarcations might not be visible due to weather conditions, leading to a crossover.
Drivers may also swerve out of their own lane to avoid obstacles, such as large tire debris, other debris on the road, or even an animal. These swerves can cause head-on crashes.
Larger trucks may not fit in their lanes, either, especially on narrow roads or bridges, where they can collide head-on with oncoming traffic.
As a general rule, truck drivers should not try to pass a vehicle on a two-lane road if they don’t have proper visibility of the opposite lane ahead. They should not, in other words, try to pass if a curve is coming up around which they can’t see, or a hill obscures the view, or the sun is in their eyes. Usually, curves and hills are demarcated with a double yellow line on the road, which means it is against the law to pass.
Traveling Too Fast
Truck drivers can also end up crossing the centerline or veering into the wrong lane if they are traveling above the speed limit or going too fast for conditions such as wet or poor visibility weather. While speed alone won’t make a truck driver go the wrong way, it can combine with other factors to make a driver unable to control the vehicle in enough time to stop their vehicle from crossing into the wrong lane or being forced into oncoming traffic by another collision.
What Kind of Injuries Stem from Head-On Collisions?
Head-on collisions can injure people in many different ways. The nature and extent of the injuries depend very much on the speed at which the truck crash occurs, the size of the vehicles, and where the person is sitting. Injuries are generally more severe if the crash occurs at a high speed. People in smaller vehicles may be hurt more seriously or even killed if they are hit by a much larger and heavier vehicle, such as a truck. People in the back seats are likely to be comparatively more cushioned from the impact than those in the front.
Injuries can include:
- Soft tissue injuries;
- Chronic pain;
- Traumatic brain injury;
- Broken bones;
- Deep contusions;
- Back injuries;
- Severed limbs;
- Spinal cord injuries;
- Internal organ injuries; and
The severity of these injuries varies widely. As painful as lacerations from a broken windshield can be, they may eventually heal. But if glass from a broken windshield flies into someone’s eyes, it can permanently blind them. Back injuries could heal quickly, or instead may cause chronic, life-long mobility difficulties.
Injuries that result in irrevocable changes in a person’s life are referred to as “catastrophic.” After a catastrophic injury, the person may not see or walk, may require life-long medical care or daily assistance, or may have to reconfigure their home and their life to accommodate their injuries. They may need retraining for a different job than the ones they held before the accident, or seek disability payments because they can no longer work at all.
I Was Injured in a Head-On Truck Collision. Who Pays for My Injuries?
All parties involved in a crash need to think about who should pay for treatment of their injuries and other harms. Victims of a head-on truck collision are no exception. Washington is a fault state when it comes to financial responsibility for truck accidents. This means the person who was at fault for causing the truck accident is also responsible for any damage resulting from the accident. As soon as possible, notify your insurance company of the accident and that you are making a claim.
Washington law allows accident victims to pursue compensation for injuries from at-fault parties. Note, however, that a liable party’s policy limits may not be sufficient if the accident caused you to sustain severe injuries.
The following injuries are just a few examples of severe injuries that can result in lifetime expenses significantly higher than minimum driver liability limits:
- Significant disfigurement;
- Spinal injury;
- Brain injury
- Permanently limited use of a body part or organ;
- Significantly limited use of a body function or system; or
- An injury causing substantial disability.
People injured in an accident caused by a truck driver or another party can pursue compensation for damages. They can start by filing claims with both the at-fault driver’s insurance carrier and the trucking company that hired the driver. The claim may proceed to a personal injury lawsuit in civil court if settlement negotiations don’t yield a reasonable offer.
If your injuries are severe, you may well need future medical care and continue to lose income from missing work. The law allows accident victims to pursue compensation for prospective medical bills, including rehabilitative therapy and care, as well as prospective lost wages. Expert testimony may be required to determine the appropriate amount of these future damages.
Another party must be at fault for the accident for you to pursue these types of damages. A driver or other party must have violated their duty of care to you by driving unsafely or breaking the law. Your injuries must also stem directly from the accident itself, and not some other cause.
To pursue a personal injury lawsuit for damages in the state of Washington, you must file your lawsuit within three years of the date of your injury or the date the injury became apparent. This time limit is known as the “statute of limitations,” after which a court is highly unlikely to accept your claim.
What If My Loved One Died in a Head-on Collision?
In Washington, certain family members are entitled to bring a wrongful death claim if their loved one could have filed a third-party insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit had they lived. In other words, another party needs to have been at fault for the accident, and the death must have been directly related to injuries or other harm sustained in the accident.
Wrongful death lawsuits need to be filed by a representative of the deceased person’s estate. If the deceased person did not leave a will, or an estate representative was not named in an existing will, family members can bring a lawsuit if they are directly related and received support and companionship from the deceased person.
Washington law allows the following parties to file a wrongful death claim:
- The personal representative of the deceased person’s estate
- The spouse or state registered domestic partner of the deceased person, and
- The child, children, or stepchildren of the deceased person.
If the deceased person had no spouse, state registered domestic partner, children, or stepchildren, the deceased person’s parents, sisters, or brothers may file a wrongful death claim.
Under state law, the damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit depend on the relationship between the deceased person and the family member bringing the lawsuit, but can include medical expenses for bills incurred before death, funeral expenses, and compensation for loss of companionship, loss of support, and mental pain and suffering. Only parties who paid the medical or funeral expenses are entitled to be compensated for them. In Washington, wrongful death lawsuits need to be filed within three years of the date of the accident.
If you need more information or assistance, an experienced truck accident attorney can answer your questions and provide the guidance you need to make decisions about your path forward.
2200 6th Avenue, Suite 768
Seattle, WA 98121