Does the law say that the rear car is always at fault in a traffic accident? Apparently not.

MS Explains: Who is actually in charge of deciding who is responsible in traffic accidents? And why do some drivers think the rear car is always to blame?

Nigel Chua | October 03, 2020, 11:36 AM

Imagine this: you're driving along a slightly-congested Central Expressway one morning. You're going slow, but at least the weather is good and traffic is not at a standstill.

All of a sudden, the car in front of you brakes, and before you know it, BANG — you get into an accident.

Thankfully, there are no injuries (except, maybe to the drivers' ego). Both cars have dents and scratches, but nothing you'd expect to cost more than a few hundred dollars.

Curiously, the other driver admits that he sneezed and stepped hard on the brake pedal by accident, and there were no cars or obstacles ahead of him which forced his sudden stop.

You offer to exchange particulars to facilitate the relevant insurance claims but seeing that you have no in-car camera, he suggests that you pay him S$200 to "close the case and move on".

After all, "the rear car always at fault mah. Everyone knows."

You suspect that he might be wrong, but then again it sounds like your uncle has said the same thing before, and you haven't exactly read the law.

At the same time, you've just renewed your car's insurance policy at a steep 50 per cent discount, thanks to your claim-free status over the last few years. 

You won't lose the discount if you are found to not be at fault for the accident, but you also realise how difficult it will be for you to prove it.

There's something quite galling about the feeling like you are being coerced into paying for someone else's wrongdoing, but you reach for your wallet reluctantly anyway...

No written law that the rear vehicle bears responsibility

Many drivers seem to have the impression that in a traffic accident, the rear vehicle bears the responsibility for the accident, as its driver should have stopped and prevented it from happening.

This commonly-held impression is, however, not found in any of the written law on the matter.

It is not the case that the rear car is always at fault.

There are in fact many situations where the rear vehicle is either not at fault, or where the fault should be shared between both the drivers involved.

Nonetheless, the prevailing impression that the driver of the rear car is always at fault can lead to incidents such as the hypothetical situation above.

There have been various incidents where drivers of cars hit from the rear expect compensation, even though they may have acted irresponsibly.

Where does the wrong impression come from?

In the above scenarios, drivers may be keen to avoid reporting the matter to their insurers as the evidence surrounding the accident may disclose traffic offences.

This is especially the case when there is wrongdoing on the part of the drivers.

For example, drivers who were racing and got into an accident might understandably want to hide any evidence that they were in fact speeding, or engaged in "Reckless or dangerous driving" (under Section 64 of the Road Traffic Act).

Keeping your insurer out of the loop is generally not advised (as they could cancel your policy or refuse to renew it), but it is not illegal.

Thus, it is possible for drivers involved in an accident to settle the matter through a "private negotiation".

These off-the-record discussions are more likely to be influenced by the prevailing notions of who is at fault, as well as drivers' assessments of what facts can be proven, and may therefore end up reinforcing the wrong ideas.

Who decides how parties should share the blame for traffic accidents?

As motor insurance is compulsory in Singapore, it is actually up to insurance companies of the involved parties to determine the share of responsibility for an accident, once it is reported to them.

If they are unable to resolve the matter, it may have to go to court.

For cases where there are no injuries, parties must follow a mandatory pre-action protocol, provided by the State Courts. This sets out a checklist of actions they must take, including gathering evidence and assessing the damage.

They must then proceed for Court Dispute Resolution sessions to settle the matter.

The case would only come before a judge if Court Dispute Resolution is unsuccessful.

In this process, the Motor Accident Guide, published in 2014 by the State Courts, must be used.

Illustrations provided in the guide give an indication of who should be responsible in various scenarios.

When is the rear car not to blame completely?

The guide contains some notable scenarios where the driver of the rear car should take less blame than the driver in front.

For example, where both cars are in a roundabout.

Here, the rear car’s Driver Y only bears 20 per cent responsibility for the accident, as Driver X has to change lanes only when safe to do so.

via State Courts Motor Accident Guide

Here's another scenario where the rear car is less at fault, occurring at a T-junction.

Driver X, who is turning right at a T-junction, would bear 80 per cent of the responsibility for a collision with Driver Y, even though Driver Y was the rear car in this scenario and could have stopped, preventing an accident:

via State Courts Motor Accident Guide

Similarly, in a U-turn scenario, Driver Y, operating the car in front, would have to bear 70 per cent of the responsibility for the accident as he needs to give way to oncoming traffic before making the u-turn:

via State Courts Motor Accident Guide

When would the police be involved?

If another civilian driver were involved in an accident with you, they would probably want you to pay your share of the damage done to their car.

The police, however, might put you in jail, fine you, or dish out demerit points, so that they can do their job of keeping the roads safe.

The police would typically be involved in traffic accidents where there is evidence of offences, and thus, their role is not to decide who is to blame among the parties involved.

Instead, the police would look at how each individual driver behaved, and decide whether or not each one is at fault for various traffic offences, such as reckless or dangerous driving, or driving without due care or reasonable consideration under the Road Traffic Act.

Meanwhile, the Penal Code has penalties for rash driving or riding. Here, “rash” refers to acts which endanger human life or are likely to cause hurt of injury to any other person.

A traffic accident may often be evidence of such illegal behaviour. This is why there is a requirement for drivers to report certain accidents to the police, specifically, accidents involving:

  • Fatalities
  • Damage to government property
  • Foreign vehicles
  • Pedestrians or cyclists
  • Hit-and-runs

As well as cases involving injuries satisfying any of the following criteria:

  • At least one person involved in the accident was conveyed to a hospital from the accident scene by an ambulance
  • The injured party was conveyed to hospital using other means of transport but subsequently hospitalised or given outpatient medical leave for 3 days or more
  • At least one of the party involved subsequently required hospitalisation or obtained outpatient medical leave for 3 days or more

Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top image via State Courts' Motor Accident Guide

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