According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Information Institute (III), collisions between two vehicles head-on do not happen as often as other types of motor vehicle accidents here in Florida or nationally. When they do occur, however, head-on collisions cause catastrophic damage and frequently result in fatalities.
At Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, we believe in doing our part to educate the public about these horrific accidents, in hopes of making them as infrequent as possible. In this blog post, we dissect the factors that contribute to head-on collisions, the most dangerous motor vehicle accidents, the physics that explain why these accidents are so dangerous, and what you can do as a member of the driving public to prevent them from happening.
Factors Contributing to Head-On Collisions
Except for small fender benders in parking lots, head-on collisions can be difficult to comprehend. Roads have lane markings, signs, and barriers to prevent cars traveling in opposite directions from colliding, not to mention lots of secondary indicators of which direction traffic should travel on a roadway. Plus, drivers facing forward should be able to avoid an oncoming vehicle.
These things all explain why head-on collisions are not nearly as common as other types of accidents. They also, however, help to explain why head-on accidents do occur. Most head-on collisions occur when a driver travels the wrong way on a road with a single direction of traffic (such as a one-way street or a limited-access highway), or when a driver on a two lane road departs from their lane and crosses into the opposite lane. Although there are many safeguards in place on Florida roads to prevent cars from colliding head-on in these scenarios, those safeguards do not eliminate the risk entirely. Road conditions and driver behaviors can cause confusion, mistakes, and the tragic loss of life.
Here are some factors that contribute to head-on collisions.
The protections road engineers install to prevent head-on collisions and wrong-way driving generally only work if drivers can see them. Although Florida takes pride in its status as the Sunshine State, the sun only shines during the day, and even during daylight hours, we still have our share of rainstorms, fog, and glare that can make it difficult for drivers to see road markings and signs. Vegetation encroaching on signs and the roadway can also limit visibility.
Time of day, weather, and foliage aren’t the only factors that impact visibility, either. Drivers who operate vehicles without adequate headlights, who forget to wear their prescription glasses and/or sunglasses, or whose cars lack functioning windshield wipers and defogging fans can inhibit their own ability to see the road in front of them and the relevant indicators of which way to go.
Driver Impairment and Drowsiness
Drivers impaired by the effects of drugs, alcohol, or a lack of sleep often make poor decisions. They can fail to notice visual cues such as lane markings and road signs. Their reaction times slow and they frequently lose their abilities to avoid obstacles or to keep their cars under control. According to NHTSA data, a consistently high percentage of head-on collisions in Florida involve at least one driver who had a measurable blood alcohol content. Likewise, drivers who fall asleep behind the wheel run a high risk of departing their lanes into oncoming traffic.
Distracted driving consists of any action that takes the driver’s attention away from the act of driving and the road ahead. We tend to think of cell phone use as the predominant cause of distracted driving, but using devices is just one of many ways drivers can lose focus on the road. Drivers who apply makeup, turn in their seats to talk to other passengers, play music too loudly, fiddle with the radio or a GPS, or lean over to grab something from the passenger-side floor are all engaging in dangerous distracted driving behaviors.
Distracted driving contributes to head-on collisions because when our minds and bodies shift while behind the wheel, so does our vehicle. Science tells us it is well-nigh impossible for the vast majority of human beings to pay attention to a smart phone screen and the road at the same time. Drivers who lose focus on the road in favor of a screen sometimes allow a car to drift from its travel lane. Likewise, physical distractions within a car have an impact on the direction of vehicle travel. Placing your hands on the steering wheel turns your body into a lever. If you lean or turn one way, your arm and hand clutching the wheel will move in a counterbalancing direction, causing the car to divert from its path and, potentially, into oncoming traffic.
Unfamiliar Roads/Inadequate Markings and Signs
Driving unfamiliar roads creates a risk of wrong-way travel and a head-on collision. Drivers who do not know where they are tend to make more rash, unpredictable, and wrongheaded decisions than drivers familiar with their surroundings. Because of its relatively high percentage of vacationers and seasonal residents compared to the rest of the country, Floridians face a particularly high risk of encountering drivers making the mistake of driving the wrong way on unfamiliar roads.
The danger of driving unfamiliar roads compounds when local governments fail to maintain road markings and signs. In the Florida sun, particularly on the coasts, lane markings fade and sometimes force drivers to guess at traffic patterns, which can lead to tragic consequences. Likewise, road agencies must take care to fix missing or fallen signs to avoid driver confusion. When these necessary markings go missing or are left unmaintained, the risk of head-on collisions rises.
Why Are Head-On Collisions So Dangerous? Physics.
We turn next to what makes head-on collisions so dangerous. You might think that because cars today come with standard safety features like airbags, crumple zones, and seatbelts, drivers and passengers in head-on collisions might have relatively good odds of walking away from these accidents unscathed. That’s not necessarily wrong. Those safety features do perform effectively most of the time.
The problem is, head on collisions tend to happen at or near normal driving speeds for at least one of the two cars involved. They exert tremendous amounts of energy on the structure of a vehicle and on the passengers inside, even if the passengers are restrained and their safety systems work perfectly.
Also, at least one of the two vehicles in any head-on collision will be subject to an instant deceleration from whatever speed it is traveling to zero, and likely also a momentary acceleration in the opposite direction. This is physics at work, as explained in this helpful article. A violent and nearly instantaneous deceleration from, say, 55 miles per hour, can cause significant internal damage to the driver’s and passengers’ bodies. Also, it is rare for any head-on collision to be perfectly head-on. There will usually be some angular force that can cause vehicle occupants further injury.
Another reason head-on collisions are dangerous is their link to driver impairment and speeding. Drunk drivers often fail to obey posted speed limits, meaning a wrong-way, head-on collision caused by an impaired driver often happens at even higher-than-normal speeds. As the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) notes in its 2018 Highway Safety Plan:
The chances of dying in a crash doubles for every 10 miles per hour (mph) a car travels above 50 mph. Speeding reduces the time a driver has to react to a dangerous situation and increases the impact energy and risk of death in the event of a crash.
Take note, however, that it’s a mistake to think that a head-on collision between two mirror-image vehicles traveling at the same speed is the equivalent of one vehicle hitting an immovable barrier at twice that speed. The laws of physics say the force of the collision will be divided between both vehicles. Which is not to say the forces involved aren’t still potentially catastrophic. They most certainly are.
Do Your Part to Help Prevent Head-On Collisions
It should be clear to anyone reading this blog post that head-on collisions pose extreme danger to drivers and passengers. But as the contributing factors listed above reflect, they’re also somewhat unusual and generally unexpected. How can you protect yourself against something so unpredictable?
Let’s break it down. There are some affirmative steps you can take as a driver to avoid causing a head-on collision. And there are also some defensive driving steps you can take to avoid falling victim to one.
How to Avoid Causing a Head-On Collision
As the contributing factors above suggest, head on collisions are, for the most part, preventable. A driver can take precautions and make sensible decisions that reduce the chance of being the person who causes a head on collision to near-zero. Using the contributing factors above as a guide, you can:
- Take care of your car. You never really know when bad weather and poor visibility or other hazardous road conditions will arise. Protect yourself by making sure the systems in your car that help you see the road ahead remain in tip-top condition. Change your wipers regularly. Never drive with a burnt-out headlight or fog-light. Make sure your defroster works and can clear condensation inside the vehicle. And take simple steps like washing gunk off of your windshield, windows, and mirrors whenever you gas up. These things will all help protect you against losing your way in a fog or a downpour.
- Report inadequate road markings and signage. If you see a road sign that’s overgrown with vegetation, or find yourself confused by fading lane markings, then report it! This FAQ from the Florida Department of Transportation explains how. A two-minute phone call could save a life.
- Don’t drive impaired or tired. Everyone knows it is illegal to drive drunk or high in Florida. But driver impairment means more than not getting behind the wheel after drinking or doing drugs. Take care to know the side effects of your prescription medication, too, as they may affect your judgment and ability to operate a vehicle safely. Also remember that driving while drowsy has the same effects on driving performance as driving drunk. If you feel tired, pull over and take a catnap.
- Minimize distractions. The fewer distractions you allow to occur behind the wheel, the less of a chance there is that any one of them will cause you to leave your lane or make a poor decision about where to turn. Keep in mind, too, that texting-and-driving is now against the law in Florida.
- Plan your trip. If you are going to drive somewhere unfamiliar, plan ahead. Review a map of where you plan to go to form a mental image of your route. Program your GPS before you start driving, to avoid distraction. And never be afraid to pull over and ask for help.
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of a Head-On Collision
Many of the same suggestions above also apply when it comes to avoiding other people’s unsafe driving behaviors. Being proactive about keeping up with maintenance on your car and reporting unsafe road markings helps keeps you and everyone around you safe. Not driving impaired or tired, and avoiding distractions, gives you the best chance of maneuvering to avoid a suddenly-oncoming car. Trip planning gives you confidence about how traffic should flow on your route, so that you can spot other people’s abnormal driving behavior.
In addition, following some basic tenets of defensive driving will help to keep you out of harm’s way. Don’t speed. Drive more slowly as visibility decreases. Keep a safe distance from other vehicles. Don’t blind oncoming drivers with your high beams.
Finally, think through what-ifs from time-to-time. Having the merest sketch in your mind of what you’d do in a sudden crisis can save your life. For instance, pay attention to your surroundings to stay alert to where you could pull off if an oncoming car suddenly swerved into your lane or appeared to be traveling the wrong way in your path. Disaster planning doesn’t need to be constant, but giving it a quick moment’s thought can make a huge difference if something unexpected happens.
If you have questions about head-on collisions and your rights after being injured in one, contact an experienced car accident attorney.
Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA Clearwater Office
800 N Belcher Rd
Clearwater, FL 33765
Phone: (727) 451-6900