Driver Liability For Merging Accidents

One of the trickier types of personal injury and car accident cases we encounter involve lane merges where a traffic lane slowly disappears and joins with a parallel lane. Merging lanes are commonly present on regular surface roads, state highways and interstate freeways, and ramps leading to highways and freeways. Merging lanes can also temporarily appear in areas of road construction.

It's not hard to imagine why accidents can easily occur at points where one lane merges into another. Where there was previously room for two vehicles moving in the same direction, now there's only room for one. The bottleneck caused by merging lanes is prime breeding ground for rear-end collisions.

By far the most common cause of accidents at the point of lane merges are drivers who merge too late with too small of a space between their vehicle and the traffic ahead of and behind them. These are drivers who are either not paying attention or, worse yet, are staying in the merging lane as long as possible in the hopes of racing ahead of the slower-moving traffic in the existing lane that's swallowing the merging lane. Another cause of accidents at this point are drivers in the lane that's receiving the merging traffic, traffic that's moving slower, who don't slow down and hit a car in front of them or slam on their brakes and cause someone to hit them from behind. 

Drivers have to be careful and watch the traffic in front of them, which, particularly in construction zones, will be the first clue that a traffic slowdown or lane merge is ahead, well before any road signs begin appearing. Monitoring traffic conditions is a basic responsibility of all motor vehicle operators. This is especially important for temporary lane merges caused by construction work because drivers who aren't paying attention may not realize until too late that there are fewer lanes than normal in that area of roadway.      

Of course, drivers also have to pay attention to road signs, along with traffic conditions. Signs warning of a lane merge will appear before the merge. In constructions zones, warning signs may begin appearing miles before the lane merge and be posted at regular intervals for the next several miles, accompanied by flashing lights and arrows. Not only do the warning signs alert drivers that the merging lane will be disappearing soon, but they're also meant to get drivers to move out of the merging lane before the merge point is reached, thus decreasing the chances of bottleneck accidents.     

As I noted, speed and daredevil driving is also a factor. You've all seen this, particularly in constructions zones on highways and freeways. Drivers will barrel ahead in the merging lane for as long as possible to avoid getting stuck in the slower-moving lane receiving the merging traffic, waiting until the last possible moment before leaving the merging lane. That often occurs at the point that the merging lane is o longer really a lane and has dwindled down to a sliver of pavement. Such drivers then try to shoehorn into a small space in traffic, which is difficult enough when trying to parallel park and even more difficult when traffic's moving at 30-50 miles-per-hour.

Untangling the liability for such an accident can be a chore. These cases often involve a lot of fingerpointing and blame-passing. Competing arguments will be made about who was driving too fast, who slammed on their brakes and created a sudden emergency, who wasn't paying attention to traffic or road signs, who waited too long to merge, who didn't allow someone to merge, etc., etc. One thing's for sure -- There's rarely a completely clear liability picture in car accident or personal injury cases involving accidents at lane merges.

Harley Erbe