Road traffic accident on ice – who is at fault?

Cars on icy road

Our Inverness office represented a woman who was involved in a road traffic accident in winter.

She described the road conditions on the day as “very icy”. Conditions were so bad that she had decided not to risk getting out of her car and drive straight home because of the icy state of the pavement.

Reduced speed due to icy roads

She resumed her journey and was travelling between Grantown on Spey and Boat of Garten. The roads in this part of the Highlands are about 200 metres above sea level and they experience some of the worst weather conditions in the whole of the United Kingdom during the winter season.

Even though visibility was good and the road has a speed limit of 60 mph, our client chose to drive at a greatly reduced speed to take into account road conditions that day.

Other driver loses control due to ice and causes car accident

The other driver was travelling in the opposite direction, towards her, when he lost control on the ice and his vehicle began to slide across into the other lane, causing a head on collision with our client’s vehicle.

The other driver was very apologetic to our client following the car accident and told her that the accident was a result of ice on the road.

Who is at fault - driver or icy road?

Legally - the driver was responsible for causing the road traffic accident, not the icy road.

The natural inclination in a road accident like this would be for the victim to be sympathetic towards the other driver, but despite the accident being caused by difficult driving conditions, the legal position is that the defender – the driver responsible for causing the accident - was in breach of his duty of care towards the client.

The ice clearly contributed to the cause of the road traffic accident, however it was there to be seen and it was obvious that road conditions were icy on the day. This is not always the case, for example with black ice.

Are you at fault if you hit black ice?

If the road traffic accident was caused entirely by black ice it is possible that a personal injury claim could be directed against the Local Authority.

This is because they are the responsible party for gritting the road and the black ice may indicate that they had failed to grit the road properly to ensure the safety of road users. Black ice is, if you like, a hidden danger.

In the absence of black ice, the Latin principle of res ipsa loqutor (literally meaning “the thing speaks for itself”) can be applied to this type of road traffic accident. This principle dictates that the mere occurrence of some type of accident is sufficient to imply negligence.

This would mean that it is up to the defender to prove the accident was caused entirely by hidden ice and not as a result of their own negligence.

Courts presume defender could have avoided accident

Generally speaking, the courts will presume that the defender was able to do something to avoid the accident.

The classic example would be finding that the defender has not driven at a safe speed given the weather conditions or a failure to kit their vehicle out with the adequate equipment (e.g. snow tyres) to deal appropriately with the weather conditions.

In this case, personal injury solicitors in our Inverness office were able to obtain an early admission of liability from the defender’s insurance company. In cases such as this the insurance companies will assume that their insured was able to do something differently to avoid the accident and will be prepared to meet the road traffic accident claim.

It was important that our solicitors were able to reassure the client that despite the accident occurring on ice, our team would be able to obtain compensation for the injuries she sustained, through no fault of her own.

Staying safe in winter

For more advice about driving in winter, please visit winter driving tips for snow and icy road conditions.