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How insurers decide liability in a pile-up


A multi-car pile-up in Sheppey, Kent, has been blamed on drivers failing to adapt to the foggy conditions. We look at how insurers decide liability in such cases.

car pile up

The pile-up involved more than 130 vehicles on the Isle of Sheppey crossing in Kent earlier this month.

Emergency workers said it was a miracle that no one was killed as a result of the accident.

Fewer than 35 people were reported to have needed hospital treatment, thanks no doubt to the excellent safety features on modern cars.

Poor visibility

Witnesses said that despite very poor visibility, many drivers were not using their lights.

Others were reported to have been tailgating: not leaving sufficient space between themselves and the cars in front.

A spokesman for motoring organisation and car insurance firm the AA says that, according to the Highway Code, motorists must use their headlights when visibility is "seriously reduced".

In practice this means when you are unable to see more than 100 metres ahead of you – which is roughly the length of a football pitch.

Fog lights 'are optional'

Using fog lights is optional, although the AA warns that car insurance firms may query a decision not to turn them on if you have an accident when visibility is poor.

The spokesman adds: "When there's fog around visibility can seriously deteriorate in a matter of seconds.

"Be extra vigilant, drive only as fast as conditions allow and maintain a greater distance between you and the car in front."

How to drive in fog:

The AA's tips for driving in fog include:

  • Use dipped headlights at all times.

  • Know how to turn on front and rear fog lights and use them when appropriate.

  • Follow the three-second rule: leave a gap of three seconds between your vehicle and the car in front.

  • Be sure that you can stop within the distance you can see clearly.

  • If you come to a junction where visibility is low, stop and wind down your windows to listen for approaching traffic.

Car insurance: Who is liable in a multi-car accident?

Stuart Cook, head of technical claims at car insurance firm Admiral, says that normally, when a car hits the vehicle ahead of them, they will be held liable.

"The automatic assumption is that the car travelling behind must stay a safe braking distance behind the car in front.

"It would be very difficult indeed to escape liability in those circumstances."

But in an accident involving a large number of vehicles, insurers tend to view matters differently.

Multi-car shunts 'difficult to establish who did what'

car crash

Cook says: "In a large multi-shunt accident, the insurer needs to go through the normal procedures for establishing negligence.

"However, because the accident involves so many vehicles in collision in such close succession it is often very difficult to establish who did what."

Cook explains that trade body the Association of British Insurers has encouraged firms to simply cover losses incurred by their own customers in such circumstances, rather than seeking to recover costs from any of the other parties.

He adds: "This is often phrased as the insurers 'standing their own losses'."

Claim on your own policy

This means that those involved in the Sheppey pile-up will probably have to pay the excess – typically a few hundred pounds – on any claims for damage.

Recent news reports have highlighted a type of fraud known as crash-for-cash and flash-for-cash.

In the former, criminals brake suddenly so the car behind runs into them.

They then take advantage of the fact the rear car is likely to be held liable to claim for damage and personal injury such as whiplash.

How to foil crash criminals

Flash-for-cash involves the criminals flashing their headlights to let a car at a junction pull out, but then speeding up and driving into it.

Again, the victim appears liable for the accident.

Cook says: "If somebody felt that they were the victim of a staged accident they should call the police and tell them that they think has just happened.

"They should also check for any independent witnesses who may be able to support their account of what occurred.

'Major insurers share information to prevent fraud'

"Make sure photographs are taken of the damage that is alleged to have been caused to both cars and to ensure that captures the registration plates too."

He adds that you should check how many occupants are travelling in the other car to ensure that no claims are raised for phantom passengers.

"Also check the area for CCTV cameras that may have captured the incident and finally insist that your insurance company vigorously investigate the other driver's – and their passengers' – claims history.

"All major insurers share information to try to prevent fraud."


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