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Anatomy of a highway pileup

Police say at least 80 vehicles were involved in a snowy, icy Wisconsin highway pileup last month. What kind of safety tips can drivers learn by watching the video?

By Money Staff Jan 23, 2014 7:15PM

This post comes from Mark Vallet at partner site CarInsurance.com.


CarInsurance.com on MSN MoneyWhat do you get when you cross a snowy Wisconsin highway with drivers traveling way too fast for conditions?


A massive pileup that resembles a real-life game of bumper cars.


The multicar crash on Dec. 8 was caught on a traffic camera, and the footage provides a bird's-eye view of the entire episode as it unfolds.

Germantown, Wis., police officer Tim Miller described the scene to a local TV station:


If people watch NASCAR, and they watch the Daytona 500 or Talladega, where they wait for what's called the Big Crash, where all the cars crash because they're all so close together, that's what this was like -- only there was nobody there to stop it with a yellow flag and slow all the other cars down," Miller said. "So you had that big, huge crash, and then cars just continued to just pile into it and taking evasive action. It didn't stop. You know, it was five, 10 minutes this went on for. It just kept going and going and going. I mean, that's what was helpless about it.

No one knows for sure exactly how many cars were ultimately involved. Police Chief Peter G. Hoell says 80 vehicles were documented. The accident shut the highway down for eight hours.


But the video also presents a teachable moment. We asked a few experts to take a look at the footage and point out the mistakes that drivers made as well as what they did right.


You're driving too fast for conditions -- and your skills

It doesn't take a traffic expert to see that many drivers were going too fast for the road conditions, but every single one we talked to considered this to be the biggest factor.


A few seconds into the video two cars appear, moving much faster than surrounding traffic. They immediately hit the brakes, but it's too late. Witness the birth of a pileup.


The first round ends pretty quickly, but then a speeding car comes into frame and fires up Round Two.


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) speeding or driving too fast for conditions is involved in about one out of three fatal crashes and is the third leading contributing factor to traffic crashes.


That's all too clear in the traffic camera footage.


"Many drivers assume that anything under the posted speed limit is a safe speed, which is not the case," says Christopher A. Puckett of DIGITS Accident Reconstruction. "If you are unable to stop your vehicle and/or avoid a collision, you are driving too fast for conditions."


Cars on icy road © Don Hammond, Design Pics, age fotostockThe Connecticut DMV recommends drivers cut their speed in half on snow-packed roads.


Overconfidence is often a factor when it comes to driving too fast for conditions, says consultant Dr. Thomas E. Boyce with the Center for Behavioral Safety. "When asked to self-report, most drivers overestimate the quality of their driving relative to others."


You're not paying attention and you are following too close

The second most common mistake is not looking far enough down the road or following too close for conditions, said our experts. While it is impossible to tell if any of these drivers are engaged in distracting activities, our experts believe many were.


"It's apparent that a number of motorists failed to observe slowed and/or stopped traffic in front of them," says Puckett. "This could be caused by driver distraction, driver inattention, or even cell phone usage. A number of approaching motorists failed to slow in time or were simply driving too fast."


At a minimum, Puckett advises doubling your following distance when the roads are snow-covered, wet or icy.


Distracted driving can be dangerous on a clear dry road, much less a snow-packed highway. According to Distraction.gov, 421,000 people were injured in accidents involving a distracted driver in 2012, a 9 percent increase from 2011.


The only drivers who seemed to be aware of their surroundings were the professionals. Our experts pointed out that every single trucker managed to make it through the accident scene unscathed, and one of them may have prevented the pileup from growing even larger.


Rusty Haight, director of the independent traffic consultant Collision Safety Institute, singles out the Wal-Mart truck in particular. "The driver was paying attention and was able to stop before the crash area. People approaching saw the big truck stopped in the middle of the road, and that caught their attention. They slowed down sooner, and were able to stop before the accident scene. A lot of credit goes to that Wal-Mart driver."


You wandered into traffic and you left the scene

Following an accident, a driver should move the car to the side of the road, if possible, turn on hazard lights and call 911.


The grainy video makes it impossible to tell if drivers put their hazards on, but it is clear that a number of drivers left their cars in the middle of the road, got out and wandered around.


When it comes to getting out of the car after an accident, the answer varies depending on the circumstances. A spokesperson for the New York State Police says, "We do not recommend that occupants leave their vehicles after an accident," but they quickly add that every situation is different.


"If you do decide to leave your car, go to the other side of the guardrail (many drivers did this) and move far away from the accident," advises Puckett. If you are injured or in pain, stay in your vehicle, buckle up and wait for help.


Police Chief Hoell agrees: "We were very lucky we didn’t have any vehicles hitting a pedestrian that day as many people stayed next to their vehicle on the highway."


A final piece of advice: Don't leave the accident scene. This is illegal in many states. As many as 25 drivers involved in the Wisconsin accident left the scene, local police say.


This is why you bought collision coverage

When it comes to massive pileups, weather is almost always a factor and determining blame is difficult to impossible.


No tickets were issued in the Wisconsin pileup, according to Hoell. “The conditions and scope of the accident made it difficult to determine fault,  and we tend to error on the side of not issuing a ticket if we don’t feel we have clear, satisfactory and convincing evidence of fault. Many cars were hit more than once.”


But sorting out fault -- who hit whom? Unless you managed to take notes before the next car piled on, you may be out of luck.


When it comes to pileups you will usually have to rely on your own insurer to get your car repaired or replaced, says consumer analyst Penny Gusner of CarInsurance.com.


"The quickest way to get your vehicle fixed is to make the claim on your own collision policy. You insurer will pay your claim and then pursue other insurers for reimbursement if it feels you are not at fault."


If you have only liability coverage, Gusner says, you would have to be able to identify the car that hit you to pursue the other driver for damages.


More from CarInsurance.com:

1Comment
Jan 24, 2014 9:37AM
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No one mentioned that the cars in both the center and left (passing) are not actually passing but were in fact creating a rolling road block by driving side by side. Why would you want to be right beside someone else on slick roads? As a triples driver (that's right 3 trailers for you that have never encountered us) I see this crap all the time. Drivers with phones held to their ear etc. Buy a bluetooth or use the one built into your new car. Look farther ahead, turn on your headlights MANUALLY in fog, snow or rain. Without them you don't even show up in my mirrors and how can anyone see tail lights when the only thing on is your daytime running lights? Also check your brake and tail lights once in a while. If your car starts to slide DON'T  HIT the brakes or only touch them GENTLY, STEER where you want to go and let off the gas gently.
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