How to avoid rear-end collisions

Having experienced two rear-end collisions, this is a subject close to my heart. The first incident was on the M4 motorway into London. In the outside lane, the cars in front of me braked quite hard, so I did too. As I glanced up at my rear-view mirror, I noticed the car behind didn’t appear to have received the memo. I remember thinking ‘Oh @*!#’. This was followed by a large crash.

The second time, my wife was driving. She approached a busy roundabout, and I assumed she was going to pull into an approaching gap; instead, she decided to wait for a gap she felt more comfortable with and braked. The driver behind us appeared to have made the same assumption as me and there was a crunch as our two cars came together.

Common causes

There are many reasons why drivers crash into the vehicle in front of them. The most common is driving too close to the vehicle in front (tailgating) and not having time to react to sudden braking. Another is driver distraction, whether it’s mobile phone use, in-car conversations or something diverting that’s happening outside the car.

Other factors include being too tired to drive carefully and speeding. The latter is particularly important when weather conditions deteriorate, as stopping distances get much greater in wet weather, especially if the road surface isn’t the best. In addition, some drivers will be nervous; they may be in an unfamiliar vehicle and on unfamiliar roads, which may lead to sudden or increased braking.

If you’re the car in front, there are also steps you can take to avoid being shunted from behind. If you notice someone tailgating you, for example, it’s worth moving to another lane or pulling over to let them pass. It might feel like you’re giving into aggressive and bullying behaviour, but at the same time, it might save lives. You should also avoid slamming on your brakes unless it is an emergency. The best practice is to brake early and slowly to ensure drivers behind you have plenty of warning that you plan to stop.

Whiplash injuries

According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), rear-end collisions are the most common type of road traffic accident, amounting to 29% of all crashes and resulting in a substantial number of injuries and fatalities each year. The US National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, noted that between 2012 and 2014, almost half of all two-vehicle crashes were rear-end collisions, which killed more than 1,700 people per year.

When it comes to injuries, one UK insurer notes that whiplash is a common injury for drivers or passengers who are involved in a rear-end collision. It is caused by a sudden jolt or stretching of the neck that damages the ligaments. Nor does it take much force. “Many whiplash injuries occur in low-speed collisions - between five and 10 mph,” it noted.

Swedish researchers have also found that women are thrown further forward in rear-end collisions due to their typically smaller frames, resulting in a higher risk of whiplash injuries. The issue is exacerbated by firm car seats, which act as a trampoline for lighter occupants.

Insurance complications

Globally, the consensus across insurance and policing is that the driver of the car that hits the back of the other car is almost always considered at fault. The only exception tends to be if the vehicle in front is in reverse gear. 

However, a 2005 medical paper made the point that most studies had looked at neck pain resulting from rear-end crashes in highly developed Western economies. All found that whiplash is a common consequence. On the other hand, a 1996 paper from Lithuania published in the Lancet found that neck pain was short-lived following rear-end collisions. Could it therefore be more a ‘compensation culture’ effect? 

The same paper also suggested that there is something about the ‘stress and anxiety’ of an insurance claim itself that tends to prolong symptoms in people seeking compensation. Employers in Western countries should therefore steel themselves for prolonged insurance wrangles if they are unable to coach drivers to be more wary about rear-end collisions.

What can organisations do?

Organisations are advised to remind their drivers about all of the above. It’s also worth noting that  research from Autoglass found that almost a quarter (24%) of drivers with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) in their vehicles were not provided with any information about the importance of these features and how they work when they had the vehicle handed over to them. The survey of almost 1,400 drivers also found that almost half (41%) intentionally switch off safety systems such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) or lane-departure warning systems, while driving. Educating drivers about the benefits of this technology could help companies move the needle on rear-end collision rates. 


Ultimately, drivers are advised to:

  • Keep a safe distance between themselves and other vehicles (two-second rule)

  • Drive at the speed limit

  • Drive to the conditions

  • Avoid distractions

  • Take the risk out

Follow these simple rules and the risk of being in a rear-end collision should be markedly reduced.

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