Rear-End Collisions: Causation, Physics & Injuries

Data compiled by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that rear-end collisions consistently make up about 30% of crashes on America’s roads. This makes them the most common form of car accidents.

Rear-end collisions also result in about 30% of the injuries caused by car crashes. Significant portions of these injuries are neck and back injuries. The reason for this is that the forces involved in rear-end collisions place a significant strain on the head, neck, and back. These forces can strain and tear muscles, break bones, and damage intervertebral discs.

Here are some facts about rear-end collisions and the back and neck injuries they cause.

What Happens in a Rear-End Collision?

A rear-end collision is a crash in which a trailing vehicle strikes a leading vehicle from behind. Rear-end collisions often happen while the leading vehicle is stopped. But rear-end collisions can also occur when both vehicles are moving.

How Rear-End Collisions Occur

Rear-end collisions can happen in many ways and under many traffic conditions. Some of the more common events that lead to rear-end collisions include:

Speeding

Speeding cuts down on a driver’s available margin for error. When approaching stopped or slowed cars, a speeder might not have enough time to react before causing a rear-end collision.

Tailgating

Following another vehicle too closely creates the perfect conditions for a rear-end collision. If the front vehicle stops or slows, the tailgater will likely slam into the rear of the leading car before the driver of the second car even realizes what has happened.

Aggressive Driving

Aggressive driving can turn into a rear-end collision in a few ways. Cutting other drivers off, tailgating, changing lanes without signaling, and brake checking can all lead to a rear-end collision.

Distracted Driving

A car moving at 40 miles per hour covers about 59 feet every second. This means that your car will travel nearly 120 feet during a two-second glance at the radio or a cell phone. If a vehicle slows or stops in front of you, you will cause a distracted driving rear-end collision.

Intoxicated Driving

Drunk or drugged driving is not just a crime in Texas. It can also lead to serious injuries or even deaths when rear-end accidents result from your intoxication.

Drowsy Driving

Like intoxicated or distracted driving, your reaction time decreases significantly when you are drowsy. You could rear-end a vehicle before you even realize it is in front of you.

Driver Error

Improper lookout, misjudging another car’s speed or distance, and other honest mistakes can put you right in front of an oncoming vehicle with no time to avoid a rear-end collision.

In most of these situations, the driver of the trailing car would have caused the accident, and as a result, they are liable for its consequences. However, the driver of the leading car may be liable if they left the driver of the trailing car with no time or space to avoid the rear-end collision.

The Physics of Rear-End Collisions

Rear-end collisions are usually treated by scientists as inelastic collisions. This means that the energy and momentum of the vehicles are the same before and after the collision. You can visualize an inelastic collision by imagining two balls of clay colliding. Rather than rebounding or bouncing off each other, the two balls of clay combine to form a single ball.

Since cars crunch into each other during a rear-end collision, an enormous energy transfer occurs. The energy of the rear vehicle is transferred to the smashed-together rear and front vehicles. This means that a person in the front vehicle experiences massive forces as the front vehicle jerks forward violently before coming to a stop.

For the occupants of the front vehicle, another physics principle comes into play. Inertia is the tendency of an object to maintain its current motion. Because of inertia, an outside force is needed to change the motion of an object.

This means that a vehicle and driver that are motionless want to remain motionless. When the rear-end collision occurs, the driver is forced into motion. Inertia means that the driver is initially pushed into the seat. But the seat pushes back, forcing the driver into the seat belt.

The restraint of the seat belt prevents the driver from striking the steering wheel or windshield. But it also places enormous strain on the back and neck as it stops the body. As a result, the back and neck are stretched and bent, often to the point of causing damage.

Common Rear-End Collision Injuries

The massive strain on the neck and back could result in several injuries that are common in rear-end collisions, including:

Whiplash

As the neck is stretched by the collision, the muscles of the neck can be strained or even torn, resulting in a whiplash injury.

Back Strain

Like whiplash, a back strain can occur when the back muscles are stretched or torn during a rear-end collision.

Broken Vertebrae

The bones that make up the neck and back are not meant to stretch and bend under the kinds of forces experienced in a rear-end collision. The vertebrae can fracture, sending bone chips into the spinal column. These bone chips can cause spinal cord injuries as the chips press on the nerves inside the spine.

Compressed or Ruptured Discs

The vertebrae are separated by cushions called discs. The bending of the spine in a rear-end collision can cause discs to compress or rupture. A bulging or herniated disc can result in nerve damage as it presses on the spinal cord.

After a car crash, you should consult a physician about any neck or back pain you experience. Back and neck injuries can be life-threatening, depending on the severity and location. They can also lead to temporary or permanent paralysis. X-rays and MRIs can help a doctor to diagnose your neck or back injury and to prescribe an appropriate course of treatment and therapy.

Recovering Compensation for Damages from a Rear-End Collision

The injuries that result from a rear-end collision could last for the rest of your life. Whiplash and back strain might take a few weeks or months to heal. However, spinal cord injuries, nerve damage, and other neurological injuries might never go away. As a result, receiving compensation from the at-fault driver may be necessary to pay for your medical bills and make up for your lost wages.