Who's at Fault if Your Car Rolls Back on a Hill?

Jul 25 at 1pm

We read our mail here at The Bold Italic. And this stumper question, sent in by a fellow stick shift driver (also called a manual or standard transmission), has been burning a hole in our inbox: "If someone is driving a stick shift up a really steep hill and they roll backwards while shifting into first gear at a stop sign — which is bound to happen — whose fault is it if they hit the car behind them? Is it the driver of the manual’s fault for not controlling the vehicle? Or does the car in back take the blame for riding the bumper at the top of Lombard?" 

Several phone calls I made about this were met with a long hmmmm and a short silence. One person who didn’t hesitate to answer was Rebekah Shapiro, an insurance agent with State Farm. Her office is on Filbert St., and Shapiro said she drives her own manual transmission car up and down its steep hills every day.  

“Technically, it would be the fault of the person driving the standard, because that is the person who’s in control of the vehicle,” she said. But in her ten years as an insurance agent, Shapiro said she has never heard of a claim arising from that scenario, so she doesn’t worry. 

Some people disagreed with Shapiro’s assessment. A driving school instructor told me that accidents are always the fault of the car in back, and another insurance agent said there wasn’t really a clear answer. Officer Gordon Shyy with the San Francisco Police Department pointed out that who caused an accident is determined on a case by case basis, so applying one rule to multiple scenarios doesn’t always work. 

The clearest, most confident answer came from Officer Mike Ferguson with the California Highway Patrol. He backs up Shapiro. 

“As far as I’m aware there is no law that requires a driver to park at a set distance behind a vehicle,” he said. But there is a law that said you have to be in control of your car if it’s moving backwards. Ferguson quoted the CA Vehicle Code section 22106 from memory. It says: “No person shall start a vehicle stopped, standing, or parked on a highway, nor shall any person back a vehicle on a highway until such movement can be made with reasonable safety.” 

A highway, in this sense, means any public road. So, basically, you’re responsible for backing up safely, even at the top of Lombard St. For drivers worried about hitting someone behind them, Ferguson recommends the emergency brake. He said if you hold the button down it won’t ratchet (or stick), and you can use it like a hand brake. Let the emergency brake keep you in place until the car starts to move and then release it, he said. 

And if the person is right up on the bumper and that seems too complicated? “Keep your foot on the brake, roll down the window and tell them to pass you.”  

Got a tip or a burning question for The Bold Italic? Email us at tips@thebolditalic.com.

Photo from Thinkstock

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