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Pileup On A Snowy Highway: Who Pays?

How do you sort out responsibility in a 103-car pileup? Very carefully.

While massive pileups don't happen frequently, clearing the roads can take hours, investigations can take weeks, insurance claims checks may not arrive for months, and lawsuits can drag on for years.

A truly massive pileup can stretch for miles and involve hundreds of vehicles.

A few examples:
  • A January pileup in Ohio on Interstate 275 involved 103 vehicles and about 200 people. There were 27 injuries and one death. A freak snowstorm dropped visibility to zero and glazed the road over with ice.
  • One of the largest pile-ups in history took place on one of the fastest roads in the world. Heavy rain was blamed for the 259-car pileup in 2009 on the A2 Autobahn in Germany. A total of 66 people were injured but luckily no one was killed.
  • Heavy fog in Texas resulted in 140-car pileup on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Two people were killed and 80 were injured. The initial crash started on the eastbound side of the highway, which led to a chain reaction of crashes on both the eastbound and westbound lanes.

With so many moving vehicles, blame is difficult to pin down. And even if blame is obvious, who's got enough liability insurance to pay for dozens of totaled cars? (See a map of state minimum liability insurance requirements.)

How they happen and who's to blame

Drunk drivers, red-light runners and speeders often cause smaller pileups by starting a chain reaction when they plow into a car in front of them. Assessing blame in these types of accidents is usually pretty straightforward, experts say.

In the case of really big pileups, weather is usually a contributing factor.

Even if the police are not able to pinpoint the exact cause of a pileup, drivers may still end up with a ticket. Lt. Chris Miller of the Florida Highway Patrol, who investigated a 47-car crash on Interstate 75 last October, says that while weather is often a contributing factor, the driver is responsible for adjusting his speed and the gap between the cars. Nineteen drivers were cited in the October crash.

Colerain Township, Ohio, traffic investigation specialist Mark Meyers says the police report on the 103-vehicle pileup in Ohio will take weeks to compile and run to 700 pages. Despite all of the time spent on the investigation, Meyers doesn't believe they will be able to determine which vehicle started the chain reaction, and the report will not show fault.

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