Earning a driver’s license is a rite of passage for young people, but before they hit the road on their own, new drivers need to enroll in a driver’s education program. In theory, those instructors help novice drivers understand the rules of the road, learn to operate their vehicles, and develop safe driving habits.
While this support is an essential part of learning to drive, it also presents a unique legal question: If a student driver causes an accident during their driver’s ed training, who is responsible for that accident? There are several possibilities.
The Student Is at Fault
To receive a driver’s license in Washington State, regardless of age, the applicant must pass an accredited driving course and log 50 or more hours of driving practice with a licensed adult. During that supervised drive time, the student driver is developing their skills and understanding, so it is unreasonable to expect them to have the same abilities as an experienced driver.
However, a student driver, even at the earliest stages of their education, is still expected to follow traffic laws, obey signs and signals, and drive responsibly. When a student driver behaves recklessly or carelessly, and that behavior causes an accident, that student driver is responsible for any accident or injury that follows.
Exceeding the speed limit, ignoring stop signs, becoming distracted by screens or conversation, or “goofing around” are all examples of behaviors that commonly result in accidents by student drivers. When these actions cause a collision, that student driver should be held responsible. Student drivers may not have car insurance, but most young drivers will be covered by their parent or guardian’s insurance.
The Instructor Is at Fault
Every teacher should maintain a safe learning environment, even if that “environment” is a four-door compact filled with teens. When instructing novice drivers, the instructor is expected to provide the experience and “extra set of eyes on the road” to support that young driver as they learn and protect other motorists from rookie mistakes. If that instructor does not maintain that due diligence, they may share some—or all—of the responsibility for an accident caused by the student in their care.
For instance, if a driving instructor is busy texting a friend while the student driver is behind the wheel, that instructor is behaving negligently and may share the blame for any accident which could have been avoided had they been attentive to their student. A driver’s ed teacher who dozes as their students drive, who fails to demand focused and orderly behavior from all students in the car, or who turns away from the road to strike up a conversation with someone in the back seat is similarly negligent, making them partially or wholly responsible when their student causes an accident.
The Driving School Is at Fault
The school itself may share the responsibility for an accident if it can be shown that they were negligent in one or more areas:
- Maintenance. Driving schools are responsible for maintaining their vehicles. If an accident was caused by mechanical trouble (e.g.: flat, under-inflated, or bald tires; malfunctioning front or indicator lights; engine or brake failure), the school itself could be held responsible for that accident.
- Hiring. When a business hires an employee, there is an expectation that they have taken reasonable steps to verify that the employee is qualified for that position. If it is shown that a driving school hired an instructor who did not hold the proper certifications, or who had a record of negligence in previous positions, the school could be held responsible for an accident that occurs during that instructor’s time with students.
- Oversight. The legal concept of vicarious liability states that a business can be held responsible for the reckless or negligent behavior of its employee if that behavior occurred during business hours and within the scope of their job description. Therefore, if it can be shown that the driving school did not train their instructors sufficiently, or did not intervene with an instructor whose behavior they knew (or should have known) to be reckless or negligent, the school itself may be held responsible for creating an unsafe environment for their students and other drivers.
All of the Above
Washington State’s comparative negligence laws allow for more than one individual to share legal responsibility for an accident, which means that a student driver AND their instructor AND their driving school could ALL be at fault. Because determining liability can be complex and contentious, if you or someone you love has been injured in an accident with a student driver, it is essential that you hire an experienced attorney willing to fight for full and fair compensation for your damaged vehicle, medical expenses, lost wages or employment, as well as pain and suffering.
Contact our offices today to schedule a free consultation so you can learn how the legal team at Max Meyers Law can help you win justice and peace of mind. When you call, be sure to request a copy of our free book Car Accident Secrets Unlocked, so you can learn more about how to protect yourself both on the road and off.