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Last week, Tim Hodson’s chance encounter with traffic backup caused by a car accident in Sacramento on the way to the All Things Legal studio inspired an insightful soliloquy from Craig Ashton on the true cost of even minor highway collisions.

Craig led things off by explaining Mr. Hodson’s tardy arrival to the studio, “Tim was stuck [behind] an auto accident.”

Tim: “Yeah, 50 was not fun, let’s put it that way.”

Craig has the occasional habit of spurred by minor events and off-hand remarks into deep, contemplative musings, and this was no exception.

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Craig: “When you’re in an accident like that, think about this: The law of negligence is what we deal with mostly. So what happens when an auto accident occurs on the freeway… somebody wasn’t using reasonable care. They caused damage to the car in front of them. With the property damage that the person is entitled to, and then their reasonable and necessary medical expenses, lost income, and pain and suffering, those are the general damages that you will see in an auto accident.”

But financial, emotional, and practical losses aren’t limited to the driver with a broken bumper.

Craig: “But what also happens is that people like Tim… when you get stuck in this, this is inconveniencing thousands of people, causing people to burn more gas, use their brake pads, causing them stress, etc. So, if you wanted to monetize the real cost to everybody who’s impacted by the negligence of the party that caused the accident, it would be 50 million bucks every time, because people are missing contracts, you’re missing the beginning of radio shows–I mean, your budding radio career, Tim, you lost a quarter of an hour, 25% of the [show]!—as the result of someone not paying attention.

“The issue is, liability is clear. The person did it. The only issue is causation, what’s called ‘proximate cause.’ Are we as a society going to hold that person responsible for all the damages that they created, or just the ones they [inflicted on] the person directly involved?”

Ed Schade jumped in with: “Let’s put our hands up. I say hold’em accountable,” prompting a loud round of laughter.

The problem is, even the most minor car accidents could result in bankruptcy.

Craig then quickly got back on topic: “So the point is, we’ve said, ‘Look, it’s not practical to hold that person who caused the accident responsible for all the real damages that they caused. From a proximate perspective, they are only responsible for the damages of the individual that they’re directly involved with.”

After all, think about the profound difference that a few minutes can make. If someone without medical insurance misses an appointment with a doctor or dentist, they may lose a nonrefundable deposit. A college student who misses an important test may see their class grade suffer, which in turn could affect their job prospects. Speaking of jobs, someone who’s on their last warning at work may turn up late, only to shown the door by their boss. Or what of the parent who misses an appointment in divorce court or with a mediator, and sees their child custody options diminish as a result?

Even minor inconveniences caused by minor lapses in responsibility and attention can result in profound losses for the motorists who happen to be proximate to the accident in question. Craig’s thought experiment highlights the need for drivers to always remember that it doesn’t take an accident at 90 miles per hour to seriously change lives. Minor accidents matter too.

On a practical level, some states are reminding drivers of the bigger picture.

Ed offered up a memory of a recent drive across Tennessee with his wife, during which he noticed that the state had posted signs saying, “If involved in a minor crash, pull over or face a $250 fine.” The idea of the fine is a simple one: It forces drivers to remain aware of the larger picture, and to get out of the way so that their fellow drivers can minimize their losses and get where they’re going.

So, the next time you’re out on the highway, be extra careful.  Driving requires great responsibility. Your fender bender could profoundly change someone else’s life.

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