It’s widely if not universally believed that the following driver has an absolute responsibility to avoid colliding with the car in front of him. Contrary to this popular consensus, the “following car rule” in Washington is not black and white.
There is a primary duty imposed on the following car to avoid collision. However, this duty is not absolute – it is excused when unusual circumstances exist or there is an emergency (not of the following driver’s making).
For instance, if the lead driver slams on his brakes and the following car collides with the lead car, there is certainly an argument that there was an emergency not of the following driver’s making. This not only excuses the following driver from liability for the collision but also allows him to file a claim against the lead driver.
Similarly, unusual circumstances – for instance a tree falling in the middle of the road – can excuse the following driver from responsibility when colliding with the lead driver.
The following driver rule is, in and of itself, not particularly interesting. But, analysis of it serves a good purpose. Specifically, it points out that the “rules” we learned in driver’s education or thought about in absolute terms for years are seldom as black and white as we may think. This leads to a somewhat more important conclusion, particularly in the context of personal injury claims: every factual scenario deserves intelligent and thoughtful analysis. There may well be claims in cases where the facts, at least on the surface, seem insurmountable.