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What is an “accident” for the purposes of the Road Traffic Acts?

Posted on 17th August

Whenever you pass the scene of a traffic collision on the motorway, the overhead matrix signs often display the word “accident” with a view to alerting other road users of the dangers ahead.  But how does the law define an “accident”?  Does the legal definition require there to be a total absence of blame, or is it a term with a wider reach?

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When does the law refer to “accidents”?

One example of when the definition of “accident” is important can be found in our earlier article relating to preliminary testing for drink/drug driving.[1]  Section 8(2) Road Traffic Act 1972 is one of the main provisions enabling the police to carry out a preliminary test for alcohol/drugs.  It states:

“If an accident occurs owing to the presence of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, a constable in uniform may require any person who he has reasonable cause to believe was driving or attempting to drive the vehicle at the time of the accident to provide a specimen of breath for a breath test […]”

The definition of “accident” is, therefore, of central importance to this statutory provision: in some cases, this definition could be the difference between a lengthy disqualification and keeping your licence.

Moreover, as we discussed in another previous article, if you are involved in an accident, there are certain things the law requires you to do.[2]  You may need to report the accident to the police, or provide other persons involved with your personal details, for example.  It is an offence to fail to do either of these things when required to do so, and these offences clearly hinge on whether, as a matter of law, there was an “accident”.

The Definition

A good starting point is that the court will consider the definition of “accident” in the context of every individual case:[3] it is to be approached flexibly, and the court will strive to consider whether an ‘ordinary man’ observing the events in question would consider an accident to have occurred.[4]

Importantly, the court has been very clear in stating that a deliberate act can still amount to an “accident” for the purposes of the Road Traffic Acts, if the circumstances demand it.  In Chief Constable of Staffordshire v Lees[5] the defendant deliberately drove his car into a locked gate, and this was held to constitute an accident.  Although this arguably stretches the dictionary definition of the term, there was a very logical reason behind the court’s conclusion:

“it would be an insult to common sense if a collision […] arising from some careless an inadvertent act entitled a constable to exercise his powers under the [Road Traffic] Act but a similar result caused by a deliberate antisocial act did not.”

The court also held in Morris[6] that some road traffic collisions can have such minor consequences that they cannot be considered accidents in the proper sense of the word: the physical consequences of the collision may be so minor that, in all the circumstances, the hypothetical ordinary man would not consider it serious enough to be an accident.

However, there have been cases where the court has held that an accident has occurred even where there was no physical contact between the vehicles involved.  In Currie[7] it was held that the approach taken in the Scottish case of Bremner v Westwater[8] should be adopted as part of English law.  In Bremner, the defendant was overtaking another vehicle on a blind corner.  A police car was rounding the corner in the opposite direction, and was forced onto the verge in order to avoid a head-on collision.  It was held that, even though there was no physical contact between the defendant’s car and the police car, the circumstances of this case were sufficient to fairly describe what happened as an “accident” for the purposes of the Road Traffic Acts.

Conclusion

In summary, the term “accident” is to be interpreted flexibly, and should be interpreted in light of the facts of each individual case.  There is no requirement for the parties to the collision to be totally free of blame, and there is also no absolute requirement for physical contact to occur between vehicles.  The key question is whether an ordinary man, having observed the events in question, would consider the events to amount to an accident.

If you are facing prosecution for any driving offence, please contact us as soon as possible for your free consultation.  In R v S[9], Mr S faced the prospect of a 24 month disqualification, and a possible prison sentence, after being involved in a high speed collision on the M1, and refusing to provide an evidential specimen of blood at the police station having been suspected of being over the drink drive limit at the time of the collision.  Having a Road Law barrister on his side meant that Mr S was able to walk away from court without a prison sentence, and with only a 12 month disqualification – the shortest possible disqualification in the circumstances.

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The contents of this article should not be relied upon in isolation.  Each case is fact specific and this article should not be treated as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.



[1] https://www.roadlawbarristers.co.uk/2016/08/when-can-the-police-perform-a-roadside-drink-or-drug-test/

[2] https://www.roadlawbarristers.co.uk/2015/11/5-things-you-must-do-if-you-have-an-accident/

[3] Chief Constable of West Midlands Police v Billingham [1979] 2 All ER 182

[4] Ibid

[5] [1981] RTR 506

[6] [1972] 1 All ER 384

[7] [2007] 2 Cr App R 18

[8] [1994] S.L.T. 707

[9] https://www.roadlawbarristers.co.uk/about-us/case-studies/