Washington State Car Accident Laws Staff Profile Picture
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Thousands of car accidents happen on Washington’s roads each year. In 2022 alone, there were 89,009 total crashes with 688 deaths. From 2013 to 2022, the Department of Transportation recorded an average of 107,444 crashes yearly, with 520 fatalities, 2,000 serious injuries, and 8,520 minor injuries.

In a study conducted by Colburn Law, a personal injury practice, and 1Point21 Interactive, a data visualization agency, they identified the50 most dangerous intersections in Washington by analyzing the state’s collision data from 2017 to 2021. The study showed that almost half of the collisions were related to intersections with high-traffic volume.

In 2000, Washington State adopted a strategic highway safety plan called Target Zero, which outlines strategies and key initiatives that can be implemented to achieve zero injuries and deaths on the state’s roadways by 2030. Several laws have been implemented to prevent further car accidents and to protect motorists, pedestrians, and passengers from property damage, injuries, and death. These are as follows:

Washington State Seat Belt and Child Restraint Laws

Washington's seat belt law states that anybody above the age of 16 who is driving or riding in a motor vehicle is required to wear a safety belt assembly that is properly adjusted and fastened. For child passengers under 16, the requirement is to wear a safety belt assembly or to be securely fastened in an approved child restraint device. State law exempts from the seat belt requirement only those who can provide written proof that they are unable to wear a seat belt properly due to medical or health concerns.

According to the National Road Safety Strategy, 94% of people in Washington State who operate a motor vehicle wear seat belts. Failure to wear a seat belt while driving or riding in a car is a traffic violation punishable by fines of up to $124. However, not wearing a seat belt does not constitute negligence and cannot be used as evidence of negligence in any civil action, including auto accident lawsuits.

Washington State Speeding Laws

Washington State adheres to two types of speeding laws: the basic speeding law and the absolute speed limits law.

Washington State Basic Speeding Law

State law requires motorists to drive at a safe speed. It prohibits driving at a speed that is greater than what is appropriate and reasonable given the circumstances, as well as current and future hazards, such as bad weather and poor road conditions. To avoid colliding with other people or vehicles, motorists should drive at a suitable reduced speed when approaching and traversing an intersection or railway grade crossing, navigating a curve, approaching a hillcrest, traveling on a narrow or winding roadway, and when a unique hazard for pedestrians or other traffic exists, such as weather or road conditions.

Washington State Absolute Speed Limits Law

The maximum speed limits on Washington State’s roadways are as follows:

  • 70 miles per hour (mph) on rural freeways.

  • 60 mph on urban freeways.

  • 65 mph on divided and undivided roads.

  • 50 mph in residential areas.

  • 55 mph on country roads.

  • 25 mph on the city and town streets.

  • 25 mph when passing playgrounds or school crosswalks.

Highway patrol officers monitor traffic using cameras, speed traps, and radar. In general, they will not pull over a motorist for exceeding the speed limit by less than 5 mph due to various factors, such as calibration errors on radar technology, speedometer inconsistencies, and tire size differences.

Penalties for exceeding the speed limit

A speeding ticket can cost up to $250 in fines and an additional $17 fee. The maximum is doubled when a driver engages in speeding near playgrounds or school crosswalks. In some cases, speeding could result in reckless driving and vehicular homicide convictions.

Washington State Reckless and Negligent Driving Laws

Washington State Reckless Driving Law

A person can be charged with or convicted of a reckless driving offense for operating a vehicle with deliberate or conscious disregard for the safety of people or property. Reckless driving is considered a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and $5,250 in penalty assessments and fines, as well as at least 30 days of license suspension.

Washington State Second-Degree Negligent Driving Law

A motorist can be convicted of negligent driving in the second degree, which entails operating a vehicle negligently and in a way that could put the safety of someone else or property at risk. This offense is classified as a traffic infraction, punishable by up to $500 in penalty assessments and fines. When second-degree negligent driving involves death or injury to a vulnerable user of a public way, the sentencing options are (a) $1,250 to $5,250 in penalty assessments and 90 days of license suspension and (b) $500 in penalty assessments and a maximum of 100 hours of community service.Vulnerable users of a public way include pedestrians, people riding an animal, or people operating or riding an electric personal assistive mobility device, a moped, a motor-driven cycle, or a bicycle.

Washington State Drunk Driving Laws

Washington State’s DUI laws prohibit people from driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or above; with a THC (marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient) concentration of 5 nanograms or above per milliliter of blood; or while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or marijuana. Drunk driving is classified as a gross misdemeanor, which is punishable by:

  • Up to 364 days in county jail.

  • Up to $5,000 in fines.

  • The use of an ignition interlock device.

If you have been hit by a driver with a prior DUI conviction, you can be charged with a Class B felony offense, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison time and $20,000 in fines.

In addition, state law imposes additional penalties for drunk drivers who cause accidents involving a minor under 16. These penalties are as follows:

  • First offense – $1,500 to $5,000 in fines and 24 hours in jail.

  • Second offense – $2,000 to $5,000 in fines and five days in jail.

  • Third offense – $3,000 to $5,000 in fines and ten days in jail.

What should you do after a collision with a drunk driver?

After a collision with a drunk driver, you should call 911 and file a report with the local police department. The report will provide evidence of what happened, statements from the witnesses, and photos of the accident scene. You should also seek medical attention. Additionally, make documentation on your own, such as taking pictures of your injuries and the damage to your vehicle.

Washington State Dram Shop Law

According to this state law, licensed alcohol vendors, such as restaurants, theaters, and bars, may be held liable for serving liquor to a minor or an apparently intoxicated patron who later causes an accident resulting in property damage, injuries, or death. 

Washington State Distracted Driving Laws

Distracted driving refers to any non-driving activity that takes away a person’s attention from driving. Most distracting activities fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Cognitive distractions – drivers take their minds off the road, such as talking on the phone.

  • Visual distractions – drivers take their eyes off the road, such as watching videos.

  • Manual distractions – drivers take their hands off the wheel, such as eating or grooming.

According to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission, 30% of crash fatalities and 23% of serious collisions in the state are due to distracted driving. Drivers are also three times more likely to be involved in an accident while talking on the phone.

Driving under the influence of electronics (e-DUI), also known as the hands-free law, prohibits drivers from using a hand-held personal electronic device, including a cell phone, while driving, being stopped at a stoplight, or while stopped in traffic. Drivers may use hands-free devices such as Bluetooth.

Dangerously distracted driving law prohibits drivers from engaging in any activity that takes the driver’s focus away from safely operating a motor vehicle. These activities include applying makeup, drinking, eating, reading books, and adjusting the radio.

Exceptions to distracted driving laws:

  • Calling emergency services.

  • Using a single touch to start, stop, or activate a feature of the hands-free device.

  • Emergency services personnel and commercial drivers (as part of their job).

 Penalties for distracted driving:

  • Texting and driving offense – $136 for the first time and $234 for the second time.

  • Other distracted driving offenses – between $30 and $100.

  • A distracted driving ticket can also affect the driver’s insurance premium.

  •  Distracted drivers who caused injuries or death to another person shall be financially responsible for the victim’s damages. They also face other penalties, such as hefty fines, prison time, license revocation or suspension, community service, or loss of employment. 

Washington State Hit-and-Run Law

In Washington State, a hit-and-run in a car accident is considered a criminal offense. It happens when a driver crashes into another vehicle and leaves the scene without giving any information. It can also be categorized into two:

  • Unattended – drivers who crash into an unattended vehicle should stop and locate the owner to notify them about the accident. A written notice indicating the driver’s name and contact information should be placed in a conspicuous place in the vehicle if the owner cannot be located. The driver should also file an accident report.

  • Attended – drivers who collided with another vehicle should stop and provide their name, address, insurance company, insurance policy number, and vehicle license number. They should also arrange for medical treatment for any person who has been injured because of the accident.

 Penalties for a hit-and-run:

  • Unoccupied vehicle – classified as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and $1,000 in fines.

  • Property damage only – classified as a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and $5,000 in fines.

  • Injuries – classified as a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in jail and $10,000 in fines.

  • Death – classified as a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and $20,000 in fines.

Pure Comparative Negligence Law in Washington State

Washington State follows the system of pure comparative negligence, which allows plaintiffs or claimants to obtain compensation even if they are partially liable for a car accident. The compensatory award is reduced by the victim’s percentage of fault in the accident. For example, if a person is 20% at fault and suffers $100,000 in damages, the award becomes $80,000 instead of the full amount.

Some states adhere to the modified comparative negligence system, which stipulates that the plaintiff must be less than 51% at fault to recover any compensation. In Washington State, however, the “pure” aspect of the law means that even if the plaintiff is 99% at fault, he can still recover one percent of the damages. This also means that multiple parties can be awarded compensation. 

Washington State Auto Insurance Requirements

Any person who drives a motor vehicle in Washington State must have one of the following options:

  • Liability insurance with limits of at least $25,000 for bodily injuries or death to another person, $50,000 for bodily injuries or death to all other people, and $10,000 for damage to another person’s property.

  • Certificate of deposit to pay for liability insurance with the  Department of Licensing. 

  • Liability bond of at least $60,000 filed by a surety bond company authorized to conduct business in Washington State.

  • Self-insurance for individuals who own 26 vehicles or more.

A personal injury protection (PIP) coverageis optional but should be offered prior to renewing or acquiring a new auto insurance policy. A vehicle owner may reject a PIP in writing.

Uninsured motorist coverage is also not mandatory. However, if drivers have been injured in collisions, they may have to rely on personal injury protection and collision coverage from their auto policy. The driver may also need to pay for medical bills, repairs, and a rental car while waiting for compensation from the negligent party.

Other coverages to consider

Vehicle owners may also consider the following insurance policies, but they will most likely have higher premiums:

  • Driving to foreign countries – auto insurance policies typically cover driving to Canada,  Mexico requires the owner to purchase Mexican auto insurance.

  • Gap insurance – pays off auto loans if the car was totaled in a collision.

  • Rental reimbursement coverage – ensures that the owner will have a vehicle to drive while the car is in the shop for repairs.

  •  Roadside assistance coverage – reimburses the amount that the owner paid the towing company at the time of the service.

  • Umbrella liability coverage – a separate insurance plan that the owner can use once the liability protection has been exhausted.

Exceptions to the auto insurance requirements:

  • Motor scooters and mopeds.

  • Specially licensed horseless carriage vehicles.

  • State-owned or publicly owned vehicles.

  • Common or contract carrier with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Drivers are required to present proof of insurance when requested by a law enforcement officer. Uninsured drivers are subject to $550 in fines and may have their licenses suspended. 

How Much Can Someone Sue for a Car Accident in Washington State?

Washington State does not have a set monetary limit for economic damages that a car accident victim can recover. However, a car accident claim should cover related and verifiable financial losses, such as property replacement or repair expenses, lost business or employment opportunities, lost wages, and medical costs. For non-economic damages, the state does not allow courts to award an amount exceeding the result of multiplying 0.43 by the average annual wage and by the life expectancy of the plaintiff. Thelife expectancy table published by the insurance commissioner serves as a guide in determining life expectancy.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Car Accidents in Washington State?

According to Washington State’sRevised Code section 4.16.080, the statute of limitations for a car accident is three years. Car accident victims should file a claim for compensation within three years of the date of the accident. For a wrongful death claim, the statute of limitations starts from the date of the victim’s death.

 Factors that can affect the statute of limitations:

  • Product liability cases – when auto components, design, or manufacturing defects were discovered later.

  • The discovery rule – when victims discover their injuries later.

  • The victim is a minor – the statute starts to run when the minor turns 18.

  • The victim became mentally incapacitated  – the statute is tolled.

  • The defendant is out of the state, in jail, or on active military duty – the statute is tolled.

When filing a car accident claim against a government entity, the victim should submit atort claim form to the Washington State Office of Risk Management. The form can be submitted:

  • Online

  • By fax - (360) 507-9251.

  • By mail - Office of Risk Management, Department of Enterprise Services, PO Box 41466

  • Olympia, WA 98504-1466.

  • In person - Office of Risk Management, Department of Enterprise Services, 1500 Jefferson Street SE, Olympia, WA 98504-1466 (set an appointment by calling (360) 407-9199).

The victim must wait 60 days after submitting the tort claim form before filing a lawsuit against the government entity. During this period, the Office of Risk Management will investigate the accident and most likely attempt to negotiate a settlement with the victim. If no settlement has been reached or the claim has been denied, the victim may start legal action. The statute of limitations applies after the 60-day period.

Washington Is an At-Fault State for Car Accident Lawsuits

Washington is an at-fault or tort state, which means the negligent party in a car accident will compensate for damages and injuries. Insurance companies and the police are responsible for gathering evidence to prove fault. Since Washington adheres to a pure comparative negligence system, fault can be shared by multiple parties.

Legal Resources for Washington State Car Accident Victims

Washington State Auto Insurance

This is the website of the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner. Some of its online tools and services allow users to file complaints and look up an insurance company or agent. It also defines auto insurance requirements for motor vehicle owners.

Online Motor Vehicle Collision Reporting (OMVCR)

This portal enables citizens to complete and submit a collision report and receive a report number. Take note that individuals who have been involved in a collision within Washington State with at least $1,000 in damages to any unit and/or injury to any person must complete an MVCR unless a police officer is present at the scene of the accident.

Washington Requests for Electronic Collision Reports (WRECR)

This portal allows citizens to search for and purchase collision reports virtually.

Washington State Pro Bono Council

An online directory of volunteer lawyers who provide free legal aid, representation, and consultation services. For assistance, call 1-888-201-1014 on weekdays between 9:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.

Washington Driver Guide

Published by the Washington State Department of Licensing, this guide outlines the rules and regulations for operating a motor vehicle.

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