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Causes of Seattle Car Accidents

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According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, in 2018 there were 12,346 motor vehicle accidents in Seattle. Twenty of those involved fatalities. Another 196 involved “serious” injuries, 994 involved “minor” injuries, and 3,032 involved “possible” injuries. Believe it or not, those numbers represented a decrease over prior years.

Nationwide, car accidents are a constant public health concern and a massive drain on the economy. Here in Washington State, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) has adopted a Strategic Highway Safety Plan known as Target Zero, which aims to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the state to zero by 2030. A centerpiece of Target Zero is an effort to prioritize traffic safety needs, based on data reflecting the most prevalent causes of car accidents.

Here at Boohoff Law, we support Target Zero as an important policy initiative that can save lives and families. In the spirit of the Target Zero campaign, and in hopes that by educating the public about causes of car accidents we can help reduce their number and severity, here is a summary of the most common circumstances that lead to motor vehicle accidents and injuries.

Driver Impairment

The WTSC reports that drug and alcohol impairment plays a role in more than half of all traffic deaths and in roughly a quarter of crashes resulting in serious injury. According to the federal public health watchdog, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington State drivers historically have reported a rate of alcohol use behind the wheel that’s higher than the national average. Driver impairment, whether resulting from drug or alcohol use, slows reaction time, increases risky driving behavior like speeding, and causes drivers to make poor decisions.

Driving or having physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a crime in Washington State. The law treats drivers as under the influence of alcohol or drugs when their blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 or higher (0.02 for drivers under 21 years old), when their THC concentration is 5.00 or higher, or when any substance impairs their ability to operate a motor vehicle. Drivers should take note that this includes driving under the influence of prescription medications.

A drunk or drugged driver who causes an accident in the Seattle area faces potential liability to anyone harmed by his or her behavior. Washington law also prohibits selling alcohol to any “apparently intoxicated person,” and as a result, anyone who “over-serves” a visibly drunk person may also face legal liability if that drunk person gets behind the wheel and into an accident. Finally, when medical professionals fail to warn patients of potential side effects of a new medication, they may also face liability if their patient operates a vehicle under the influence.

Speeding

According to Target Zero, on average, speeding plays a role in approximately one-third of all traffic fatalities in Washington State every year. It is a particularly significant factor in accidents involving drivers ages 16 to 25, particularly young men. Speeding is, however, rarely the sole-factor in a serious accident. Rather, speeding increases the risk of loss of control when other factors are also present, such as slippery road conditions, driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or driving on unfamiliar (particularly rural) roads. That said, speed alone can make an enormous difference in whether a driver survives a crash. As Target Zero points out:

“The risk of death and injury increases substantially as speed increases, because the amount of energy generated increases exponentially as a result. For example, crashing into a wall at 80 mph generates four times as much kinetic energy (the harmful force in a crash) as hitting the same wall at 40 mph.”

All drivers in Washington State must obey posted speed limits. But speed limits only represent an approximation of what constitutes a safe speed for a given road. Drivers also have an overarching duty to “drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.” In other words, no matter the posted speed limit, you are speeding if you are driving faster than is safe for road conditions and hazards at that moment in time.

Drivers who speed put themselves and others on the road at risk of serious injury and death. A driver whose speeding causes an accident that harms others will likely face civil (and possibly criminal) legal liability for causing the accident and its resulting injuries.

Distracted Driving

Most people do not realize it, but distracted driving has been a major contributor to accidents in Washington State since long before cell phones became a fixture in our lives. Anything that takes a driver’s attention away from the road ahead, or the driver’s hands off the wheel, constitutes a potentially-fatal distraction; that includes putting on makeup, fiddling with the radio, staring at a GPS device, reaching for something in the back seat or on the floor, or turning your head and body to look at something.

That said, cell phone use has, for good reason, become a principal focus of anti-distracted driving efforts. Texting and driving, in particular, is exceedingly dangerous. The human brain simply is not equipped to type out a message on a smartphone screen and pay attention to the road at the same time. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a “multi-tasker” that can handle doing both things at once. Science has found that you can’t.

In 2017, as part of the Target Zero effort, Washington State passed the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act, which makes it illegal to use a hand-held device while behind the wheel of a car, even if you are at a stoplight or traffic isn’t moving. In addition to facing potential criminal penalties, distracted drivers who cause accidents will also likely face legal liability for the harm they cause to others.

Drowsy Driving

According to WTSC, nearly a third of all drivers have fallen asleep behind the wheel in their lifetimes. More than ten percent of drivers have fallen asleep behind the wheel in the past year. The effects of drowsiness on a driver’s abilities mimic those of drug and alcohol impairment. The WTSC notes:

Drowsiness slows reaction time, affects a driver’s ability to make good decisions, and increases the risk of crashing.

WTSC also argues that drowsy driving statistics are likely underreported, both because people may not admit they were drowsy behind the wheel, and sometimes people simply don’t realize when they’re drowsy. Like much of the nation, Seattle residents tend to get less than the 8-hours of sleep most people need to be alert.

All drivers should learn the warning signs of driving drowsy. Obviously, we associate physical symptoms, like yawning and blinking frequently, with being tired. But other signs, such as “zoning out,” missing an exit or turn, or leaving your lane, also indicate exhaustion. Young drivers and commercial drivers face particular risks of drowsy driving. All drivers, however, should get into the practice of taking breaks when on long distance trips. And remember, caffeine and energy drinks have a very short-duration effect. They are not substitutes for getting sleep, which is the only way to return yourself to full alertness.

As above, if a driver takes to the wheel while drowsy, he or she will likely face legal liability for any harm caused to others in an accident that driver causes. Increasingly, the Washington State Patrol and local law enforcement agencies have concentrated their efforts on cracking down on drowsy driving, which can lead to fines for drivers who get nabbed for nodding off behind the wheel.

Poor Traffic Design/Intersections

Another factor that contributes to accidents in Washington State, and particularly here in Seattle, is poor design of traffic patterns. Poor design poses a significant problem at intersections, in particular. Nearly two-thirds of fatal and serious injury crashes in urban areas occur at intersections, according to the Traffic Zero campaign.

In this previous blog post, we provided an overview of the most dangerous intersections in Seattle. Deadly T-bone collisions and collisions with pedestrians frequently occur at intersections.

It is up to local and state governments, and the contractors they hire, to design safe roads and intersections for Seattle drivers. An intersection that has a particularly high rate of accidents tends to be a sign that those agencies and contractors did not do an adequate job. These entities may have legal liability for designing and failing to maintain intersections and other stretches of road that are unsafe. Drivers who fail to obey traffic laws at intersections, or who make the mistake of picking up their cell phones at intersections and cause a collision, may also face liability.

Defective Automotive Equipment

Manufacturers of cars and car parts have an obligation not to sell “defective” products that will fail under normal operating conditions. Under Washington State law, manufacturers and sellers of defective products may face legal liability to anyone harmed by the failure of their products. Drivers can take steps to avoid falling victim to defective automotive products by keeping up to date on automotive recalls and by regularly servicing their vehicles.

Environmental Conditions

Not all car accidents result from human error, at least not directly. In Seattle, weather conditions can also contribute to serious and fatal collisions. Our streets are frequently wet, and sometimes icy. That makes stopping more difficult and increases the likelihood of collisions. So, too, does driving in rain and fog, also common occurrences in Seattle and Tacoma.

As a driver, you cannot control the environmental factors that affect road safety. The only response to weather and other conditions out of your control is to observe safe driving behaviors: keep a safe speed and distance from other vehicles, keep two hands on the wheel, do not operate under the influence, get sufficient sleep, and avoid distraction.

Legal Help for Car Accidents, Whatever the Cause

Seattle residents and visitors who have suffered injuries or a tragic loss of life in a car accident should seek the help of an experienced Seattle car accident attorney as soon as possible. Under Washington State law, they may have rights to recover significant compensation for their injuries, but they must act quickly. The statute of limitations for most personal injury actions in Washington State is three years; if you miss that deadline, your right to recover money damages will likely be lost.

But three years is the very latest you can take legal action for your injuries. It’s best to seek the help of an experienced attorney much sooner, so that your attorney can:

  • Investigate your accident while the evidence is still fresh to identify the cause of the accident and the parties who may have a legal liability to you (as well as the ability to pay);
  • Negotiate with insurance adjusters and defense attorneys to obtain a fair and reasonable settlement for your claims, if possible;
  • Litigate in Washington State or federal courts to recover the compensation you deserve if a fair and reasonable settlement cannot be reached.

Victims of Seattle-area car accidents, whatever the cause, can frequently recover damages to compensate them for a wide range of costs and harms, including:

  • Past and future medical costs;
  • Lost income and reduced future earnings;
  • Loss of life enjoyment/consortium/companionship; and
  • Pain and suffering.

Call Boohoff Law Today for Help With Your Auto Accident Claim

There is never any guarantee that a car accident victim can recover damages. It depends, to a significant degree, on the combination of causes of the accident and resulting injuries. But victims can give themselves the best possible chance of recovering monetary damages by contacting the skilled, committed group of lawyers at Boohoff Law today at (877) 999-9999. An initial consultation with a member of our team is always free, confidential, and comes with no strings attached. Let us get started helping you recover from your car accident, whatever its cause.