Road traffic crashes and winter weather

Cars driving in snowy conditions

Given the recent spell of bad weather and treacherous road conditions, we thought it might be useful to highlight some common misconceptions about what would be deemed to be negligent behaviour on the roads and what is simply an unavoidable, weather-related accident.

Snow and ice are slippery. That may be obvious but why are they slippery and, more specifically, why do they cause cars to slide? The friction between the rubber of your tyre and the surface of the ice or snow causes a thin layer of water to form. This thin layer of water is highly viscous. It acts as a perfect lubricant between the two surfaces which causes the tyre to slip. The more force that is added, the more friction is created and the more the tyre slips.

Scenario 1 - Being hit from the rear by a vehicle failing to stop

This is by far the most common winter accident that Digby Brown deals with. The car behind you fails to stop in time and hits the rear of your car. Snow, ice and rain all increase braking distances significantly and increase the likelihood of this type of crash happening in bad weather.

Whose fault is it? Generally, not the driver of the vehicle that has been hit. That is true in just about every circumstance, however there will always be situations where this could be questioned, especially if they have stopped suddenly without due cause. Very often, blame lies with the driver of the vehicle that has failed to stop in time. However, are they always at fault? If the road conditions are bad and the road has snow or ice on it and they have hit the car in front with enough force to have caused injury to any of the occupants of either vehicle, it is likely that they have failed to drive with reasonable care, no matter what the speed limit might be.

Is there an argument that the road should have been gritted and the Council or the roads authority is at fault? Very doubtful, but not impossible. For example, if the road is notorious for accidents during bad weather or it is a known black spot for black ice, there could an argument to say the roads authority had not properly prioritised the route to be gritted to prevent these situations from recurring.

Scenario 2 – Losing control of your vehicle and leaving the road

You lose control of your vehicle, it skids or just no longer responds to your controls and you leave the road.

This type of accident is completely dependent on the speed and behaviour of the driver in conjunction with the conditions of the road. In the extreme, any vehicle, even four-wheel drive vehicles or vehicles fitted with winter tyres, can lose traction at any speed on black ice and the driver will be helpless to control what happens next. However, if you are going slowly, the likelihood is that the impact, if any, will be minor as the forward momentum will soon stop before the vehicle causes harm to any of the occupants. Regardless of visibility and road conditions, the main reason that vehicles crash causing injury to the driver and their passengers is the speed and style of driving. The driver is the responsible party and needs to drive with due caution taking account of and responding to the weather conditions.

There will always be unforeseen circumstances where the road conditions suddenly change. Standing water on the road after heavy rain which then freezes and creates black ice, especially in the morning, is just one example. These types of cases will often depend on forensic evidence gathered by crash investigators to determine speed and road conditions and, in turn, the cause of the crash and whether the driver was at fault.

Scenario 3 – Losing control of your vehicle and hitting another vehicle or pedestrian

As recently shown in the city centre of Glasgow, extreme weather can cause accidents at low speeds. Having decided to proceed down a steep, snow-covered hill off St. Vincent Street, an unfortunate Tesla driver hit a stationery vehicle two thirds of the way down. It seems blatantly obvious from the footage that the car was immediately out of control and an accident was inevitable. Maybe a vehicle equipped with hill descent could have completed a safe descent or a skilled driver could have controlled the skidding Tesla but it looked inevitable - from the off, gravity took over and momentum did the rest. Luckily the impact didn’t seem to be high speed and hopefully no one was injured.

Was the driver of the Tesla negligent? From what we can see from the footage, the driver was probably at fault. If someone in the stationery car had been injured, would they be entitled to compensation? That would depend on whether the Tesla driver knew or should have known that it was unsafe to go down the hill and could have chosen not to go down. If they were stationery at the top of the hill, could see that it was dangerous to descend and could have turned round or chosen another route but chose to go ahead regardless, the likelihood is they were negligent for attempting the manoeuvre and would be liable for any injury caused. On the other hand, if they had turned the corner, or were already descending whilst proceeding with extreme caution and had no way of knowing how dangerous the hill was, then found themselves sliding, then perhaps it was an inevitable accident and no-one’s fault.

In no way could blame lie with The Council. The snow was falling heavily and no gritting regime could have avoided the road being snow covered.

Scenario 4 – Vehicle one loses control resulting in Vehicle two having to take avoiding action then hitting Vehicle three

Vehicle one loses control and swerves into the oncoming path of vehicle two. Vehicle two tries to avoid a crash but smashes into another vehicle three. The road was covered in snow.

It’s getting quite complicated. Potentially no-one is to blame; or vehicle one, or vehicle two or both are to blame for this crash. If both drivers were driving with due care and attention but the roads were so slippery that vehicle one lost control under gentle braking or acceleration causing it to swerve, and vehicle two then reacted instinctively, jerking the steering wheel into the path of vehicle three, then no-one is to blame. The accident is due entirely to the road conditions.

On the other hand, both drivers of vehicles one and two could be to blame or both partially to blame, depending on the speed and actions they took. Speed will be a factor for both vehicles. Vehicle one could be reacting to something that wasn’t immediately apparent or could have simply hit black ice. Vehicle two could be excused blame because they reacted “in the heat of the moment”. Basically, faced with an immediate danger, they made a split second decision as an instinctive, protective measure. This reaction is not based on reason but on instinct from our “fight or flight” past. Legally, this can be a defence to why someone did something which, in the cold light of day, wasn’t the best option.

As complicated as this scenario is, the overriding reason someone is at fault, is when they are driving out with the parameters of what would be described as safe, with due care and attention. Often both vehicles will be partially to blame, this is a common occurrence with multiple vehicle accidents.

The consequences of snow and ice are inevitable. More vehicle crashes. Scotland has bad weather and with the recent deluge of snow, nowhere is unaffected. However, weather is just one factor. The major reason people are injured in these types of crashes is the driver’s ability to know what speed is sensible and safe and to drive accordingly. A good driver knows when they are going too fast or even too slow. Vehicles should be driven without sudden changes of velocity, whether accelerating or braking, maintaining a steady pace in as high a gear as possible to avoid wheel spin and loss of control. Failing to drive to the weather conditions is dangerous and very often will have horrible consequences to innocent road users.

If you have been affected by a winter crash, we can help, even if just to reassure you if anyone was actually at fault or if it was an unavoidable weather related accident.