Most of us consider ourselves to be good drivers and we’re confident in our abilities to handle a situation on the road, react quickly and use good judgment. However, accidents still happen to people who are good drivers. Part of driving (a big part!) is sharing the road with other drivers, and we can’t always account for or predict their behavior.
In some instances, an accident happens when one driver’s careless or reckless behavior causes a different driver to crash. Who’s at fault in that situation?
What is brake-checking?
Brake checking is when a driver quickly and abruptly hits their brakes in order to catch the driver behind them off-guard and force them also to brake very fast. This is intentional, reckless, and illegal. It can cause rear-end accidents or even a pile-up if the traffic is moving swiftly.
Aside from the danger of someone being injured (or worse, a fatality), there are also legal and financial implications. In an at-fault state, the driver who causes the accident is the person who pays for the damages to all injured parties.
But this gets murky when the driver who caused the accident isn’t actually involved in the crash.
Consider this scenario: Driver A is the first car on a road with a single northbound lane and a double yellow line in the middle. He’s driving a little under the speed limit, which is 45 miles per hour. Following is Driver B, who is in a hurry and not quite the recommended two car lengths behind Driver A. Driver C is behind Driver B. He’s driving at the rate of traffic and paying attention to the road.
Driver A becomes annoyed because he believes Driver B is a little too close to his bumper. Driver A taps the brakes, but it doesn’t send the signal he was hoping to. So he slams on his brakes abruptly. Driver B is close, but alert and he manages to brake in time to avoid hitting Driver A.
But Driver C doesn’t see the “warning tap” from Driver A, and when Driver B brakes suddenly to avoid hitting Driver A, Driver C is caught off guard. Driver C rear-ends Driver B. Driver A drives away, unaware that a collision happened behind him.
Why do drivers brake-check?
Sometimes a driver will tap on their brakes as a “warning” to the driver behind them that the front driver believes the driver behind is following too closely. A little tap might serve as a signal without causing a hazardous condition if it doesn’t substantially affect the speed of either vehicle and if it’s perceived as communication (and not as a threat or hazard).
But there are other situations when a driver who is feeling reckless will brake-check for fun. For example, teenagers who know their friends are following behind might brake-check for entertainment or to “get” their friends—but this could cause a serious accident.
Who is liable for a brake-checking collision?
If someone intentionally brake-checks, they could be held partially at fault for an accident if their behavior was negligent or reckless.
However, if the person isn’t directly involved in the collision, you might not be able to prove their liability—or even identify them. It’s possible that there’s a witness who can testify to having observed their actions, or that there’s video like a dash cam or surveillance footage.
Even so, suppose a camera has a sharp enough view and the correct angle to record that the brake-checker’s brake lights engaged and lit for a moment. It would also have to show what’s in front of the vehicle to determine that it was a brake-check and not a necessary braking maneuver. In other words, the driver could argue that they had to brake quickly for some reason—an animal in the road, a sudden maneuver of a vehicle up ahead, etc. unless there’s evidence to show otherwise.
Brake-checking can be road rage
Road rage is when someone becomes so angry that they begin to drive aggressively, recklessly, or unpredictably. It could also involve verbal threats to other road users, or even threats of (or actual) violence.
You’re not responsible for the behavior of other drivers, but sometimes brake-checking can further aggravate a driver who is already beginning to show signs of road rage. For example, if you’re driving appropriately at the speed limit and the driver behind you wants to go faster, they might tailgate (follow too closely). If you tap your brakes or brake-check, it could make them even angrier. They might drive even closer to your vehicle, engage in reckless swerving, begin honking, or worse.
If you find yourself in front of a seemingly aggressive driver who has no way to pass you, you might consider pulling over for a moment in order to allow them to pass. It’s not “giving up” or conceding—it’s keeping yourself and your passengers safe.
What to do after a brake-checking accident
- Avoid confrontation. You don’t know what a stranger is capable of, if they’re drunk or high, or if they have a weapon. Remain calm, don’t make accusations, and call the police for assistance. It’s their job to de-escalate a situation, not yours. Remain at the scene of the accident and stay in your car with the doors locked if it is safe to do so.
- Call 911. A police report could be crucial to a finding of liability. Besides, the police will assist in helping you resolve the situation peacefully and without injury or harm.
- Don’t admit fault. Even if you hit the car ahead of you in a rear-end situation, you might not be sure why the person in front of you hit the brakes—you don’t want to put your legal argument in jeopardy. Don’t lie, but you’re not required to make a statement to the police, either.
- Gather information. If you’re able to do so, take note of information like any witnesses’ names and phone numbers. If there’s other evidence at the scene that could be relevant, either take accident scene photos or make notes.
- Obtain a medical exam. It’s crucial to get a medical examination after any accident. It could take days or weeks to experience symptoms related to a crash, and it will be hard to prove that they were caused by the accident if you didn’t have an immediate medical evaluation.
Finally, the key to a successful outcome is finding a personal injury lawyer. Your lawyer will be able to minimize your liability if you’re in a state where that is important to recovering damages. As well, they’ll review the evidence and determine who is actually at fault and what your legal remedies could be.