By Francis M. Smith
When you are injured in an automotive accident involving another vehicle, your ability to collect fair compensation for your injuries relies on whether you can demonstrate that the other driver caused the accident through negligent behavior. In some cases, proving negligence can be a difficult task, requiring your attorney to collect witness testimony, pore over the statements given by both drivers, or even bring in experts to reconstruct the accident. However, there are certain types of collision in which it is much easier to argue for negligence.
More than 1 in every 4 motor vehicle accidents in the US is a rear-end collision, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Being rear-ended, even at low speeds, is dangerous and can cause injuries to the head, neck, and spine. Worse still, often this type of injury doesn’t reveal itself right away, amidst the adrenaline surge of the accident, but manifests over the days or weeks following. A delayed onset of symptoms does not mean that these injuries are superficial; injuries to the head and neck are serious, and may require extensive treatment and physical therapy in order to achieve a full recovery. The expenses connected to such an injury can rack up quickly, from the medical bills for doctor visits and medications, to the lost wages from missing work due to your injuries and medical appointments, as well as any help you require in your daily life when your injuries prevent you from performing routine tasks. Clearly, being able to obtain compensation for these costs and losses is not only fair and just, but may be absolutely necessary to prevent an injured plaintiff from going into debt or suffering financial hardship – and securing that compensation requires you to be able to prove negligence on the part of the other driver. Fortunately, New Jersey law is clear under these circumstances, and rulings by the New Jersey Supreme Court have borne out interpretations of the law that protect individuals who are rear-ended by another vehicle.
One law governing driving in New Jersey, N.J.S.A. 39:4-89, states that the driver of a vehicle must not follow another vehicle more closely than could be considered reasonable or prudent, giving consideration to the speed of the vehicle in front and other traffic, as well as the road conditions. In other words, drivers are legally required to maintain a reasonably safe following distance between their own vehicle and any other vehicle in front of them. Rulings by state courts have clarified that this means that a failure to maintain a safe following distance constitutes negligence in and of itself – it is not merely one piece of evidence that can be used to build an argument that the driver was negligent. If the driver was following too closely, that alone is sufficient to establish a claim of negligence.
What, then, constitutes following “too closely”? The language in the statute is necessarily subjective, because the amount of distance required to give an attentive driver enough time to respond to a sudden change in the road ahead of him (such as the vehicle in front of him stopping or braking unexpectedly) depends on the vehicle’s speed, road surface conditions, and visibility. A few general guidelines exist, however. The New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles Drivers Manual offers an explicit standard: in clear weather and road conditions, a safe following distance between cars is one car-length per 10 miles per hour of speed that a vehicle is traveling. For example, if a vehicle is going 60 mph on the highway, the driver should leave a minimum of six car-lengths of distance between his own car and the vehicle ahead of him.
Another method of checking following distance relies on considering reaction time, rather than trying to eyeball car-lengths. Commonly referred to as the three-second rule (no, not that one), it advises the driver to pick a stationary object on the side of the road, such as a tree or highway sign. When the vehicle ahead of him passes that object, the driver should begin counting seconds. If at least three seconds elapse before the driver’s own car passes the marker object, the driver is maintaining a reasonable following distance. Again, this measurement is applicable only under clear visibility and road conditions; darkness, fog, or rain, and slippery or icy road surfaces, should double the usual amount of following distance to ensure that you have enough time to react to sudden changes in the road ahead of you.
As clear-cut as New Jersey law is regarding the "rear-end hit" collision, following distance, and negligence, insurance companies will always look for ways to transfer part of the fault away from their client and onto the injured plaintiff, even in a rear-end collision. That’s why it’s vital to work with an experienced injury attorney from the beginning, to protect your right to fair compensation.