According to PennDOT, 128,420 motor vehicle crashes happened in the Keystone State in 2018; 1,103 resulted in the deaths of 1,190 people, 56,765 resulted in injuries to 78,219 people, and the rest caused only property damage (at least, so far as was reported in police reports that supply these statistics). By any measure, car accidents represent a serious and ongoing risk to the health, safety, and wellbeing of all Pennsylvanians, whether they drive, ride, or walk on and around Pennsylvania’s roads.
At The Levin Firm, we have a front-row seat to how motor vehicle accidents devastate the lives and livelihoods of Pennsylvania residents and visitors. Our principal job is to help those accident victims obtain the compensation that will help them recover from their injuries and losses. Our hope, however, is that in writing this blog (with help from the resources available at PennDOT’s website linked below), we can also educate the public about how accidents happen and ways to prevent them.
Because, although our attorneys are always ready and willing to help Pennsylvania and South Jersey car accident victims and their families recover from an accident, we would much prefer if those accidents never happened in the first place.
There were 9,811 alcohol-related crashes in Pennsylvania in 2018. Though that figure represents an improvement on the previous year’s tally, it will come as little comfort to the 4,665 accident victims injured in those crashes, and to the families of the 307 people who died in them. Despite public outreach efforts and education campaigns, Pennsylvanians and visitors to the Commonwealth continue to get behind the wheel after drinking, with disastrous consequences.
Pennsylvania’s “legal” blood-alcohol limits (at which a driver is deemed to be impaired by alcohol regardless of circumstances) are 0.08 percent for adult drivers of private vehicles, 0.04 percent for drivers of commercial vehicles, and 0.02 percent for drivers under age 21. But just because a driver has not reached the “limit” does not mean that the driver is not impaired. In fact, alcohol impairment begins with the very first drink, and under Pennsylvania law, an adult driver can be charged with driving under the influence (DUI) with a blood-alcohol content of just 0.05 percent if other signs of impairment are present. A DUI conviction in Pennsylvania comes with hefty fines and collateral costs, and the possibility of jail time even for the first offense.
There are good reasons for these laws and penalties. Alcohol consumption impairs a driver’s reaction time, visual acuity, motor control, and decision making. Drunk drivers are more prone than other drivers to speed and to depart the roadway. And in a cruel twist of fate and physiology, drunk drivers often survive accidents in which sober victims do not.
In addition to criminal penalties, drunk drivers in Pennsylvania face potential legal liability for damages caused by an accident. In many, but not all, accidents involving alcohol use, the driver who had been drinking has “fault” for the injuries and losses his actions cause. Under Pennsylvania law, owners of establishments that serve “visibly intoxicated” patrons may also face liability for injuries those patrons cause as drunk drivers.
It bears noting, too, that alcohol is just one of the substances that can impair a driver. Legal and illegal drugs can also have negative effects on a driver’s ability to control a vehicle. Driving while “high” or otherwise impaired by any type of drug is both unlawful and extremely dangerous.
Of all of the car accidents in Pennsylvania in 2018 for which “driver error” was identified as a contributing factor, aggressive driving behaviors constituted the most common.
- Speeding contributed to 32,710 crashes;
- Tailgating played a role in 7,310 crashes; and
- Careless or illegal passing contributed to 4,848 crashes.
Pennsylvania’s aggressive driving problem reflects a broader national condition. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly one in four fatal crashes on U.S roads involves one or more drivers who were speeding or driving too fast for road conditions. Speeding also tends to go hand-in-hand with crashes involving alcohol use, because drinking tends to lower driver inhibition and to increase driver risk-taking.
Under Pennsylvania law, “No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing, nor at a speed greater than will permit the driver to bring his vehicle to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead.” In other words, even though a driver has an obligation to obey that speed limit, that is only the lower bar to what it means to drive at a safe speed. Every driver must take road conditions and situations into account, and drive at a responsible rate.
Unfortunately, speeding is ingrained in American driving culture. Motorists tend to view it as a “right” to exceed speed limits by a few miles per hour. But the reality is, driving just a little too fast can put drivers, passengers, and fellow road-users in lots of danger. A driver whose speeding causes a crash also faces legal liability for his or her actions.
After aggressive driving, the second-most-common driver error contributing to accidents on Pennsylvania roads is driver distraction. In 2018, distracted driving contributed to 14,292 accidents, 63 of them fatal, according to PennDOT.
These days, we tend to think of distracted driving as driving while using a smartphone to talk, text, or scroll. To be sure, using screens is a primary mode of driver distraction, and is extremely dangerous. That is why it is illegal in the Commonwealth to “operate a motor vehicle on a highway or traffic way ... while using an interactive wireless communications device to send, read or write a text-based communication while the vehicle is in motion.” Violation of the law subjects a driver to a $50 fine, and to legal liability for accidents resulting from that driver’s distraction.
However, using a smartphone is just one of many different ways a driver can lose focus on the task of driving. Talking to passengers, putting on makeup, turning to look at something on the side of the road, fiddling with the radio, and reaching for something dropped on the floorboard all also constitute distraction and create a high risk of causing an accident. That is because, as automatic and routine as driving might feel for an experienced motorist, operating a motor vehicle safely is a complex task that requires attending to multiple inputs all at once, from seeing the road ahead to applying appropriate pressure on the gas pedal and steering wheel to recognizing hazards as they develop. Any distraction that takes away from just one of these tasks can cause a chain reaction of missteps or delayed reactions leading to a catastrophic collision.
2,533 driver-error-related crashes in Pennsylvania in 2018 resulted from drowsy driving, according to PennDOT. But we suspect the number of accidents in which driver fatigue played a contributing role was much higher than reported. As a nation, Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About one third of adults report not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. So, although the contribution of drowsiness to the cause of a traffic accident might be obvious in some cases, the odds are far higher that one of the drivers in an accident was operating on less-than-enough sleep and did not even realize or report it.
Here is how PennDOT describes the effects of drowsiness on driving ability:
Driving while fatigued has similar effects as driving under the influence of alcohol. Being awake for 18 hours impairs your driving about as much as a blood-alcohol level of .05 percent. Being awake for 24 consecutive hours impairs your driving as much as having a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent.
Take a moment to reflect on those figures for a moment. As we noted above, a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent is enough to get a person charged with DUI. Yet, being awake for 18 hours a day is very common for drivers of working or school age. Which suggests that we share the road with drivers who are, in effect, as impaired as someone who should get a DUI, all the time.
Sleep is a critical component of human performance. If you plan a long road trip, get adequate sleep the night before and take regular breaks from driving. It is far better to pull off the interstate to take a 20-minute catnap while parked in a shopping center parking lot than to doze off behind the wheel at interstate speeds.
According to PennDOT, a driver making an improper turn contributed to 12,871 Pennsylvania traffic accidents in 2018. There are lots of reasons a driver might make an improper turn, some entirely the driver’s fault, some resulting from factors beyond a driver’s control.
For example, at an intersection, a driver might make an improper turn leading to an accident because of distraction or aggression. But on occasion, a driver that turns into the path of an oncoming vehicle does so because traffic signals fail, or because of confusing traffic patterns, or because the driver simply cannot see the approaching traffic. When an accident stemming from an improper turn causes injury and the loss of life, lawyers must often unpack the circumstances of the accident to determine exactly why the driver made a turning error. Often, some other factor is to blame.
Drivers in Pennsylvania, just like most everywhere else in the country, must have their vehicles inspected annually by a certified mechanic. These annual inspections help to reduce the number of unsafe vehicles traveling on Pennsylvania roads.
However, inspections cannot eliminate the problem of automotive defects. Every year, accidents happen in the Keystone State because of defective vehicles and vehicle parts. Tires blow. Airbags fail. Transmissions slip. Brakes do not do their job. When the vehicle and parts manufacturers know of these safety-related problems, they must conduct a recall.
Unfortunately, however, even recalls cannot eliminate the potential for accidents caused by defects. Oftentimes, manufacturers and drivers do not even learn of a defect until a significant number of accidents and injuries have already occurred. That is why, under Pennsylvania law, manufacturers of defective automotive products have legal liability for the damages flowing from accidents caused by those defects. The potential economic cost of facing a “product liability” lawsuit forces manufacturers to remain vigilant about dangerous products.
About 25 percent of the reported car accidents in Pennsylvania every year happen on roads affected by a failure to adapt to weather conditions. Wet, icy, foggy, high-glare, or snowy roads can make it difficult to keep vehicles under control, and to see and react to road hazards. That leads to accidents—more than 30,000 of them in 2018, according to PennDOT.
Of course, we cannot control the weather, and we have only some ability to avoid driving in adverse weather conditions. Still, drivers, civil engineers, and road crews have duties to take preventive measures to avoid increasing the likelihood of an accident when the weather turns bad. For drivers, that means maintaining their vehicles to ensure the best possible tire trip and visibility. Road designers should engineer roadways and intersections to minimize the risk of weather contributing to accidents. Road crews should take care to maintain roads in drivable condition and to warn drivers of extreme dangers.
Legal Help for Car Accidents, Whatever the Cause
Sometimes, drivers simply cannot avoid getting into a car accident. When the worst happens, and a car accident leaves you injured or mourning the loss of a loved one, protect your legal rights. Contact an experienced car accident injury attorney to learn whether the parties who caused your accident and injuries owe you compensation. Do not wait. The sooner you reach out to a skilled lawyer, the better your chances of recovering every dollar you deserve for the pain and difficulty your accident has caused you and your family.