Car accidents are a common occurrence on US roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates the number of police-reported traffic accidents in 2008 at 5,811,000. And in a 2008 AAA report, motor vehicle crashes cost Americans more than $164.2 billion each year. Given these numbers, it's likely you have been or will be involved in an auto accident at some point in your life.

Motor vehicle insurance is required in all states, and although laws vary, all drivers must carry a minimum amount of liability insurance. This makes it easier for a person injured in a crash to receive compensation, but it's not a guarantee. Before paying a claim, the insurance company will investigate to determine who or what caused the accident. Fault can lie entirely with one person, or may be divided amongst several people or businesses.

For minor accidents, the insurance companies may do all the investigating. After more serious accidents, especially those causing death or severe injury, the police will most likely conduct an investigation and possibly file criminal charges, for example: manslaughter. A person who was driving while under the influence of alcohol and caused an accident which killed another person, could be brought up on manslaughter charges.

Negligent or Reckless Driving

The actions of one or more drivers are the most common cause of accidents. In order to prove that another driver was at fault, you need to show that the driver broke a specific rule or law. Often police and insurers will decide that the driver was being either negligent or reckless at the time of the accident.

Each state defines negligent driving somewhat differently, but the term generally means failing to be reasonably careful or doing something that the average person should recognize may cause harm to another. Some acts considered negligent are:

  • Ignoring posted speed limits, which can include speeding or driving too slow.
  • Disobeying traffic signals, including stop lights, stop signs or yield signs.
  • Failing to signal, either before turning or changing lanes.
  • Not taking road conditions into account: The posted speed limit could be too fast if conditions are poor, such as when visibility is reduced, traffic is heavy or the road itself is in poor shape.
  • DUI/DWI: Consuming enough alcohol or drugs (including prescription medications) to impair your judgment. A blood alcohol level below the legal limit does not automatically mean you were not impaired.

The above actions may also be considered reckless driving, depending on intent or severity of the actions. States tend to define reckless driving as the willful disregard for the safety of others or an action likely to cause harm. So, going 5 mph over the speed limit on what you thought was an empty road might be looked at differently than driving 25 mph over the posted limit in a school zone.

In many states, negligent driving is just a traffic violation, but reckless driving is a criminal misdemeanor that could result in jail time.

Other Causes

Sometimes, things other than a driver's actions cause accidents. For example:

  • A defect in the car
  • Defective road surface
  • Malfunctioning or hidden traffic signals or signs

In the above cases, the liable party would depend on who was responsible for preventing the problem. If the car wasn't properly maintained, the owner might be responsible. If a part were defective, the fault would lie with the manufacturer of that part, and possibly the car's manufacturer as well. Government transportation departments are responsible for roads and traffic signals.

If you are in an accident, stay calm, exchange insurance information and try to write down everything you can remember about the accident to help the investigation later.