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Rear Impact to a Tow Hitch Causes More Injury with Less Visible Damage

A rear-end collision in which a vehicle crashes into a truck or SUV with a tow hitch or hitch receiver will greatly increase the chance of whiplash by creating “a stiff crash pulse” which smashes the car and its passengers forward violently.

This issue is becoming more recognizable every day. No one can deny this phenomenon which greatly affects a large number of rear-end, whiplash injury collisions and their victims.

Consider these two statistics delivered by the National Safety Commission:

  • The most frequent vehicle accident in the United States in the rear-end collision.
  • Approximately 40% of the vehicles on the highway have a tow hitch receiver, per the National Safety Commission. This is a part of the towing package on a truck which is bolted to the rear frame of the vehicle.

Riding in a vehicle which has a tow hitch will greatly increases the chance of whiplash in a rear-end collision despite minimal appearance of rear-end collision damage.

An impact to the tow package—directly or indirectly—may have enough driving force to bend the frame. A collision repair mechanic can check the frame measurements. The frame can be deranged, which can also affect alignment and suspension. This level of impact often totals the vehicle due to a frame derangement being more expensive to repair than paying for the whole vehicle.

The point is clear: a tow-hitch impact can cause severe and permanent injury via spinal whiplash and traumatic force of acceleration/deceleration during a collision, whether or not there is visible damage to the tow hitch or fame.

Damage for these impacts can be so minimal that the protocol for testing crash bumper damage thresholds by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS) now requires removal of the receiver hitches before testing. Receiver hitches prevent damage to the rear of the vehicle—despite causing enormous potential for whiplash injury.

To compare a tow hitch case to a non-tow-hitch case is comparing two completely different biomechanical crash models. When a vehicle crashes into the hitch—and thereby directly into the tow package—the vehicle causing the crash smashes into the mass center of the vehicle being hit.

The mass center—the tow package being directly leverage with crash velocity—is bolted to the suspension and tires, and it is also bolted to the chassis and cabin. The energy of impact is transferred directly to occupants—driver and passenger of the vehicle. There is no resistance from fender crumping like there is in a crash without a hitch.

An article by the National Safety Commission has reported that, “occupants of the ‘target”’ vehicle will move forward at 2.5 times (or more) then that of the “bullet” vehicle. So a small 5 mph impact will send the occupants of the target vehicle flying forward at 12 – 13 mph – certainly enough force to hurt people” (National Safety Commission).

When a hammer strikes a nail but misses it only slightly, a portion of the nail still goes into the lumber— whether or not the outside of the nail is twisted. A more direct hit will drive the nail forward with the impact of a hammer which weighs 3,000+ lbs.

A vehicle of similar height as the tow hitch—such as another truck, van, or SUV—will hit the tow hitch receiver even more directly.

It is up to you at the time of the crash to protect your ability to claim damages for an injury. Unfortunately, for most people who just got crashed into, it is very hard to comprehend the extent of the damage at the time of the crash.

Injured car crash victims are surprised and often in shock, and signs of serious injury may not appear until hours or days later. Whiplash injuries can take up to 72 hours or longer to present themselves through physiological signs of pain and/or injury.

We recommend to immediately take pictures of the vehicle which rear-ended you. This is critically important to capture the imprint of the tow hitch receiver if it is visible on the other vehicle. Inform any first responders of any perceptions of discomfort or injury.

Unfortunately, the average truck with a tow hitch tows less than 1% of the time. Having a tow hitch is an extreme liability when considering how much it increases injury potential. More, an insurance company may argue that injuries must be minimal due to low appearance of damage—this is anything from the truth. We recommend installing an impact attenuator to the hitch receiver when the hitch is not in use.

As a car crash victim, it is important to seek appropriate medical care without delay. If you feel you may be injured in a crash, we recommend you consult an Austin car accident attorney immediately to advise you of your options in this matter.

We also recommend recording any initial statements to you instigated by the at-fault driver. If the at-fault driver was in a commercial vehicle, it is essential to observe any indication of gross negligence or gross failures of due care. It is very important to diligently report this information to any law enforcement crash investigators, or any attorneys with whom you are working.


JLThanks to our friends and contributors from Joe Lopez Lawfor their insight into rear end collisions.

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Steve Harrelson
Steve Harrelson
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