The Science of “Looming Motion” and “Looming Threshold” in Rear-End Motor Vehicle Crashes

crushed vehicle.jpgRear-end crashes represent nearly 25% of all roadway motor vehicle accidents. The natural inclination is to blame the driver of the approaching vehicle, the one that slammed into the rear of the other vehicle. Florida law supports this notion by creating a presumption of fault against the approaching driver.

Law enforcement, the courts, and personal injury lawyers are well-advised to think twice before jumping to this conclusion. They must understand that attentive drivers sometimes crash their vehicles into the rear-end of leading or stationary vehicles in broad daylight through no fault of their own.

Our firm and Domnick & Shevin PL are involved in a lawsuit against a motor coach company and its driver for a client who drove his employer’s passenger bus into the rear of the motor coach. The motor coach was stopped in a through lane without any traffic forcing it to stop or slow down. It did not have a flat tire, run out of gas, or have a mechanical emergency. Our client, who approached from behind in the same lane, had a clear view of the stopped vehicle beginning from approximately 1000 feet away. There were no cars in front of him in any of the approaching traffic lanes. Our client noticed the motor coach from a distance off, but it wasn’t until he was too close to avoid the accident that he perceived it was stopped. Our client sustained catastrophic injuries.

We have hired numerous experts to explain various elements of the case. An engineer will discuss speeds, distances and things of that nature. A trucking expert will describe industry standards and safety issues. Neither of these experts, nor the many doctors who will talk about our client’s horrible injuries and the economist, who will calculate past and future economic damages, are qualified to explain the phenomenon of why a trailing driver can plow into the rear of another vehicle without being at fault.

That is the job of a human factors expert. We have hired one of the best.

I will not try to explain in scientific terms the various elements, one of the most interesting of which is the principle known as “looming motion,” for why our client is blameless for this accident. (Click here to link to an excellent article on “looming motion.”) I will, however, touch very briefly on each element in layman’s terms, leaving for the readers of this blog the heavy lifting needed to better understand this fascinating subject.

As it relates to roadway safety, “looming motion” concerns the human ability to perceive the behavior of vehicles ahead. Interestingly, a stopped vehicle in the roadway ahead can, under certain circumstances, including in broad daylight, be one of the most difficult of all dangers to perceive. It takes strong visual cues, such as warning triangles, occupants visible outside the car, a tire being changed, to alert drivers that a stationary vehicle.

Tied into the science of perception is the power of expectation. A person’s expectations of a situation can elongate the inability to perceive a danger. In other words, expectation can slow down the ability to perceive a danger. For example, in our case the accident happened on our client’s normal route, one he drove daily for more than ten years, at a location – near the entrance to a theme park – designed so that commercial passenger vehicles approached without backup or delay. Not once in all his years of driving this route had any other vehicle been stopped in this part of the roadway for no outwardly apparent reason. It was our client’s reasonable expectation that, as usual, vehicles were flowing without delay to the entrance gate, situated some 800-1000 feet ahead. Accordingly, although he saw the motor coach ahead, he did not perceive that it was stationary. The difficulty to perceive combined with the expectation of smooth sailing created the perfect storm for this rear end crash. While the motor coach operator had the power of choice to stop the vehicle in many locations other than the through lane, through an explainable inability to perceive, our client did not have an opportunity for cognitive choice.

“Looming distance” is a well-studied science. A mathematical formula is used to determine the distance at which the danger should have been perceived. Adversaries will often argue over the numbers, such as the approach speed of the tailing vehicle – in our case, the engineers for both sides agree on the speed at impact – to be plugged into the formula. Such is the nature of lawsuits.

In our case, the human factors expert gave an opinion, with input from the engineer as to travel speed and distance per second, as to when, in terms of feet away, a reasonably attentive driver would have first perceived that the motor coach was stopped ahead. The answer he gave is that by the time our client was able to perceive the danger, it was too late for him to do anything to avoid the crash. (Importantly, all evidence indicates that our client was being reasonably attentive as he approached the stopped vehicle. He said so and his passengers agreed.)

It is important to remember that perception does not mean the same thing as reaction. Once a danger is perceived, it takes additional time for the human brain to react.

It is not the point of this blog to suggest that trailing drivers are never at fault. That would be silly. What should be taken away from this blog is that it is important for lawyers to think outside the box. It may not always work, but when it does, it can be gratifying to both the lawyer and the client.

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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.