Mon 25 Feb 2019

Road Accidents: Motorcyclist crashes into back of motorist - motorist found liable

The popular view is that a motorist crashing into the rear of the car in front is to be presumed at fault but what does the law say? A good starting point in such a question is to look at the Highway Code. 

Rule 126 deals with Stopping Distances and sets out that you should:

"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 (see Typical Stopping Distances diagram, shown below)
  • 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.

So that might lead to the view that the driver of a vehicle that drives into the one in front is at fault but a recent Court case shows that this is not always the case. In the recent case of Leslie O’Donnell v Lisa Smith and Another a motorcyclist was injured after crashing into the back of a car which performed what was described as an unnecessary “emergency stop” on a clear section of the A82 road at Loch Lomondside. The motorcyclist was awarded nearly £50,000 damages and the car driver was found wholly at fault.

The evidence led in the Sheriff Court showed that the driver became "apprehensive" at the sight of the motorcycle approaching from behind and inadvertently braked too heavily, in effect carrying out an emergency stop. Mr O'Donnell was an experienced motor cyclist in company of two friends who were touring in the Highlands. He took up position 50-60 yards behind the car and was doing between 50-55 mph. This was in the area of the stopping distance gap recommended in the code.

The Sheriff focused on the car driver having no reason to suddenly brake. He said:

"Looking at the circumstances as a whole, there was no reason whatsoever for her to brake. There was nothing ahead which gave rise to any requirement to do so and while slowing down a little by removing her foot from the accelerator, to allow the pursuer to overtake if he wished to do so, may have been legitimate, a sharp braking manoeuvre was inappropriate. The clear advice in the Highway Code is to drive steadily without sudden changes of speed or direction."


The Sheriff also said that there was “no single rule which specifies the distance which should separate two vehicles travelling one behind the other”, and that “the mere fact of one vehicle having collided with the rear of another vehicle in front does not of itself give rise to the presumption that the driver of the following vehicle has been negligent”, but the following driver is expected to drive in such a fashion as will enable him to deal successfully with all traffic exigencies “reasonably to be anticipated”.

This case is a useful reminder not to make assumptions about such situations. It should always be considered whether the front vehicle did anything which could not be reasonably expected. Some previous decisions were based upon the idea that an emergency stop was just such an exigency, which the following vehicle requires to anticipate. This case reaches a different conclusion despite the terms of the Highway Code.

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