Every organization’s risk manager dreads a phone call like this from one of the company’s drivers:

“I’ve been in an accident. I’m okay, and so is the other driver, but my vehicle is totaled. It wasn’t my fault, though – the other car just came from nowhere!”

Of course, you’re relieved no one was hurt, but you can’t help thinking with chagrin, “This could cost us a lot of money.”

And you have good reason to be concerned. Aside from the cost of replacing the vehicle and the likely disruption in business operations, you’re worried that another claim against your commercial auto policy could result in a substantial increase in your premium.

That’s why the time to act is before you send your drivers out on the road, and that means having in place a robust loss control and safety program that includes training drivers in accident avoidance. And since the objective of all safe driving courses is to teach drivers to prevent accidents from happening in the first place, drivers must be taught the concept of preventability.

Preventability is the basis for determining whether an accident could have been avoided in spite of any adverse driving conditions and in spite of any unsafe practices on the part of the driver who caused the accident. In other words, even if a driver is not ticketed for or charged with causing an accident, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the accident was not, from the driver’s perspective, preventable.

It should be made clear that preventability is not, in this context, a legal concept used to determine fault or establish negligence. Instead, preventability is a determination based on the belief that driving safely and minimizing the risk of accidents requires consistent adherence to defensive driving principles and techniques endorsed by the National Safety Council.

Of course, given the many factors involved in auto accidents, establishing specific criteria for determining when an accident should be deemed preventable is difficult. Nonetheless, managers must have in place standards for preventability that they explain clearly to drivers and that they apply consistently and impartially when assessing drivers’ performance.

Negotiating Intersections

It’s well known that many accidents occur at intersections, and while you might assume that even safe drivers are powerless against drivers who run red lights or stop signs, that’s not the case. A basic principle of defensive driving is that drivers should approach, enter, and cross intersections in a manner that compensates for other drivers’ failure to obey traffic signs or conform to traffic laws.

Here’s a perfect example: After the light at an intersection turns green, a driver immediately accelerates and is then struck by another vehicle, coming from the opposite direction, that has run a red light.

The driver whose vehicle was struck will not be charged with the accident, as it is clear that it was the other driver who broke the law. But the accident might still have been prevented if the driver not at fault had paused, looked to the left, to the right, and then to the left again before proceeding. In other words, that driver could have prevented the accident by allowing for the other’s recklessness.

That’s why defensive drivers, when they encounter the complex traffic flow, blind spots, and illegal maneuvers of other drivers that are all too common at busy intersections, can prevent accidents by proceeding with caution.

When Cars Collide

The key to preventing front-end collisions rests largely on whether drivers observe the proper following distance at all times. In ideal road conditions, a driver should maintain a two- to three-second following distance between his or her vehicle and the one immediately ahead; in bad conditions, an even greater following distance is recommended.

Nighttime front-end collisions often occur when drivers “overdrive their headlights,” that is, they travel at a speed at which they cannot come to a complete stop within the distance illuminated by their vehicle’s headlights. Instructing drivers to stay within “the headlight zone” is key to preventing nighttime collisions.

When their vehicle is struck from behind in a classic “rear-ender,” drivers may automatically assume that the accident could not have been prevented, but experience suggests otherwise. The risk of rear-end collisions increases if the lead driver has not maintained a proper following distance with the car in front. So when a driver must stop suddenly to avoid hitting the car ahead of his or her own, and then gets rear-ended by another tailgating driver, that accident may legitimately be deemed “preventable.”

Similarly, other rear-end collisions that can be prevented include those that occur when the driver in front:

  • Allows the vehicle to roll backwards;
  • Stops too abruptly when a traffic signal changes (usually because the driver was speeding); and
  • Fails to use turn signals.

Backing accidents are almost always preventable, even when the driver reversing the vehicle is getting “help” with the maneuver. Simply put, the driver is the only person who can control the vehicle and therefore is entirely responsible for checking the vehicle’s clearance by using rear- and side-view mirrors properly and looking backward when necessary.

So what should defensive drivers do to prevent both front- and rear-end collisions? Slow down, pay attention, maintain a safe distance from other cars, and be sure to signal their intentions to other drivers.

Passing Fancies

Accidents that occur during passing maneuvers are preventable for the simple reason that the act of passing another vehicle is almost always voluntary; therefore, the passing driver is responsible for and capable of preventing accidents that could result from his or her driving decisions.

Let’s say that a driver is struck by the vehicle he or she is attempting to pass because that vehicle unexpectedly and improperly speeds up to avoid being overtaken. While the other driver has technically “caused” the accident by striking the passing vehicle, it is possible that the passing driver’s judgment will be deemed poor and the maneuver ill-considered. Such an accident is certainly preventable.

And what about when a vehicle is sideswept or cut off by another vehicle attempting to pass it? If the driver being passed has failed to yield to the other vehicle by slowing down or by safely moving to the right, then the resulting accident, though not the fault of the driver being passed, could have been prevented by defensive driving.

Safe Driving is No Accident

Of course, there are other situations in which driving defensively can prevent accidents often thought of as unavoidable, and we’ll discuss some of these in next month’s newsletter.

But it’s always a good idea to review the standards of defensive driving with those employees who operate a vehicle as part of their job.

Defensive drivers:

  • Make allowances for other drivers’ lack of skill and improper driving habits;
  • Adjust their driving to the current weather, road, and traffic conditions;
  • Compensate for the unsafe actions of pedestrians;
  • Remain alert to accident-producing situations and take every precaution to avoid accidents; and
  • Know when they must yield right of way, slow down, or stop to avoid being involved in accidents.

Adherence to these standards is in both your employees’ and your organization’s best interest.