Who Is at Fault in a Car Accident at an Intersection?


Car accidents at intersections are usually caused by drivers either not paying attention, or deliberately violating traffic laws. Fault can be complicated, particularly if there are no witnesses, because it usually relies on who is telling the truth about what happened.

Of the more than 12 million car accidents in the U.S. in 2019, more than five million happened at an intersection. On top of that, about half of all fatal crashes involve an intersection.

Most intersection crashes – 96% – are caused by driver error (as opposed to weather or a vehicle malfunction).

“At fault accidents at intersections are directly related to the motorist’s failure to pay attention to traffic lights, traffic signage, traffic patterns and traffic conditions,” said Robert Borrelle Sr., of Grungo Colarulo, a personal injury law firm in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Sometimes it’s obvious who is at fault – the driver ran a red light or stop sign – but in a lot of cases, it’s not as clear.

Left-turn accidents are a common type. A driver may turn in front of oncoming traffic, or a driver who’s stopped to turn may be rear-ended. Right-turn accidents are increasing as more states allow drivers to turn right on red lights. The right-turning driver may not yield the right of way, or a driver behind the right-turning one may rear-end it, if the turning car stops. In any of those scenarios, determining fault can be tricky.

There are as many types of intersection accidents as there are cars on the road, and when more than one car is involved, it can be difficult to sort out just what happened.

“Fault many times is complicated by opposing versions of the drivers involved in the accident,” Borrelle said. “When there is no independent eyewitness to provide an independent version, liability becomes directly contingent upon the credibility of each motorist involved in the accident, which many times leads to an unjust result.”

Common Mistakes that Result in Fault for an Intersection Accident

There are some mistakes that almost always result in that driver being found at fault, though there are always exceptions, usually related to the other driver also making mistakes.

These mistakes usually involve violating traffic laws or common sense. The reason for the mistake – inattentiveness, obstructed view, misjudging what another driver is going to do, and did we mention inattentiveness? – isn’t usually what results in fault.

The event – the traffic violation or mistake – caused by that reason is where fault will usually be determined. Some of the most common events that cause an accident at an intersection are:

  • Speeding
  • Running a red light or stop sign (either deliberately or because of inattentiveness)
  • Not yielding the right of way (not only to other cars, but to pedestrians)
  • Not proceeding with caution, or stopping, for a yellow light
  • Not using a blinker when turning
  • Accelerating when the light turns green before making sure the car in front of you is also accelerating

Accidents at Intersections with Traffic Lights

The rules may seem obvious at intersections with traffic lights – red means stop, green means go, yellow means exercise caution.

Drivers with the green light have the right of way. Yet, more than half of intersection-related accidents happen at ones with traffic lights.

Borrelle said that, frequently, accidents occur when drivers disregard the fact that yellow means “proceed with caution.” Instead, they hit the gas.

“If the green light turns to yellow, the approaching motorist must stop their vehicle, unless they are so close to the intersection that they cannot safely do so,” he said. “Only under that circumstance can they proceed through the intersection on the yellow light.”

There are some common causes for accidents at intersections.

Red Light Violations

Speeding through a red light, or a yellow light that’s turning red, or not paying enough attention to see the red light are common causes of a red-light violation accident. If both drivers claim they had a green light, and there were no witnesses or traffic-camera footage, determining fault may be difficult.

Malfunctioning Traffic Light

When traffic lights are malfunctioning – not working at all, or blinking – drivers have to resort to their knowledge of who has the right of way. At a multi-lane busy intersection, it may just be a free-for-all where, as in many other cases, fault may rely on each driver’s version of the truth.

Left-Turn Violations

Drivers making left turns are at the bottom of the right-of-way pecking order. Failing to yield right-of-way usually means fault. But another driver may be at fault if they rear-end the stopped left-turning driver. If an oncoming car is speeding, it can also complicate fault if the turning driver misjudges the speed and they collide.

Read-End Collisions

Rear-end intersection collisions have many causes.

  • A driver accelerates to go through a yellow light, but the car in front stops.
  • The light turns green, and a driver accelerates before the car in front of him does.
  • The left-turn and right-turn scenarios we already discussed.

In all of these, and many others, either driver may be found partially or completely at fault, depending on turn-signal use, speed and other factors.

Accidents at Intersections with Stop Signs

Everyone who took driver’s education or a written driving test had to learn the four-way stop rules. Then, it seems, many drivers promptly forgot them. The car that arrives at the intersection first has the right of way. If more than one car arrives at the same time, the car on the right has the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way before any car does.

Drivers that are turning – both left and right – must yield right of way to drivers who are going straight through the intersection.

Cars must stop completely at a stop sign to assess what’s going on at the other points of the intersection. This is important because drivers have to adjust if another car “enters the intersection at a high rate of speed,” Borrelle said.

Accidents at intersections with stop signs rely on each driver’s perception of their and others’ behavior. It may be hard to determine fault if they both claim that they were in a position to have the right of way.

Benjamin Michael, of Michael & Associates, in Texas, said, no matter who has the right of way, “You always want to make sure that you and the other driver are always paying attention to each other’s movements, in case the other driver thinks they stopped first and thus starts to drive. I always advise drivers to wave each other through in situations where the right of way may be unclear, because communication prevents accidents.”

Accidents at Intersections with Flashing Traffic Lights

When all four sides of a flashing light are red, drivers should behave as though they’re at a four-way stop sign intersection. When one direction is red, the other yellow, the car who has yellow should proceed with caution, and the one with red must yield the right of way.

But flashing lights can also confuse drivers, and just like the other scenarios, it may be one driver’s word against the other as to what happened to cause the accident.

Accidents at Uncontrolled Intersections

Accidents at intersections with no lights or stop signs are the hardest to determine fault at. Drivers have to depend on common sense, and all drivers should slow down and assess the situation. Even though there are no stop signs, stop-sign rules apply. The car that arrives at the intersection first has the right of way. If cars arrive at the same time, the one on the right has the right of way, though turning cars must yield to cars that are going straight.

As with the other cases, when an accident happens, it can be difficult to determine who is at fault if the drivers perceive they had the right of way.

Should You Hire an Attorney if You’re in an Intersection Accident?

Determining who is at fault in an intersection accident often involves getting police reports, investigating the scene, tracking down witnesses, seeing if traffic-safety camera footage is available, and more. It also means a detailed knowledge of traffic rules that can be complicated and have nuances that aren’t immediately obvious.

If you are in an accident at an intersection, particularly one that has injured you or other drivers, you may want to hire a personal injury attorney who knows the ins and outs of determining fault in intersection accidents.

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken has a three-decade career as a journalist at daily newspapers and publications that focus on business and consumer finance. She covered several beats during her newspaper career, including local and state news, features on prominent public officials and several years running a sports department. She is a subject expert on topics that include consumer debt, consumer credit, labor issues, financial abuse, rural development, and legal matters resulting from accidents in the workplace and on the roads. She is adept at presenting complicated topics in an easy-to-read format that helps readers understand the topic's impact on their lives … and their pocketbooks!


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