Overview of the Hague Convention of 4 May 1971 on the Law Applicable to Traffic Accidents
Traffic accidents constitute one of the most – if not the most – voluminous sources of noncontractual obligations worldwide. Increasing cross-border traffic and transport leads to
growing numbers of traffic accidents that include international elements. Traffic accidents
present two noteworthy characteristics: they are dealt with, for probably more than 99
percent of cases, (1) outside the court system, and (2) mainly through the activity of
insurers, often through agreed international arrangements1. In order to determine
questions of liability, of existence, kinds and extent of damages, and of applicability of
rules of prescription and limitation, it is crucial to be able to determine ex ante and with
certainty what law applies to these questions.
Purpose of the Convention
The Hague Convention of 4 May 1971 on the Law Applicable to Traffic Accidents (the “Traffic
Accidents Convention”) was drawn up with full awareness of this reality. One of its primary
aims is, therefore, to provide clear, precise and easily applicable rules to determine what
law applies to the traffic accident. This serves the interests of all parties involved, those of
the victim in particular. The victim has a critical interest in knowing with certainty,
immediately after the accident, what law applies to the issues of liability and damage, so
that these do not need to be made subject to (protracted) litigation. This is also in the
interest of insurers, who are thus able to avoid judicial costs. This, in turn, results in lower
insurance premiums, which is in the general interest of everyone.
The Convention goes back to a proposal of the United Kingdom made at the Tenth Session
of the Hague Conference (1964) to put the topic of the law applicable to torts and delicts
on the Agenda of the Conference2.
The concern of the Convention is to connect the accident to the appropriate legal
environment, to achieve a fair result to all parties involved. In this context, the protection
of the victim remains, however, a major overall as well as specific concern of the
1 Insurance plays a critically important role in (international) traffic accidents. Insurance in international traffic
accidents now operates within frameworks such as the Uniform Agreement (1989), which made the green card
possible, and in the European Union within the Directives on traffic accidents and the 1991 Multilateral Guarantee
Agreement, which together abolished the control of the green card at the borders.
2 In his Memorandum on Torts in Private International Law, Professor Dutoit on behalf of the Conference’s
Permanent Bureau concluded that while it would be difficult for the Conference to draw up a general Convention
on the law applicable to torts, in the light of the enormous varieties among legal systems, it might be feasible to
draw up specific instruments on traffic accidents and on products liability. This analysis was accepted by the
experts and the Governments, and ultimately resulted in two Conventions; one on traffic accidents that was
signed in 1971, and one on product liability, the Hague Convention of 2 October 1973 on the Law Applicable to
Products Liability which was signed in 1973. The Conference also has on its Agenda for future work a global
convention dealing with civil liability for environmental damage.
What traffic accidents are covered by the Convention?
Although the Convention deals only with traffic accidents – and not, for example, with
questions of product liability, or the liability of parents for their children, or contractual
liability – the varieties and numbers of issues it covers are still enormous. The term vehicles
– as means of transport – may include, in addition to the usual suspects, cars and trucks,
trains and trams, horses, and skis. The place of the accident may be a public road, an
industrial site or a campsite. The persons involved may, in addition to the driver and the
passengers, include the lessee of the car and persons outside the vehicle.
Connecting factors to establish the applicable law in the event of a traffic accident
The Convention provides in addition to its main rule – the law of the place of the accident –
subcategories of rules, based on the registration of the vehicle and the habitual residence
of the persons involved, for a certain number of specific groups of situations where these
are more connected with a different legal environment than that of the place of the
accident. For all these different groups of situations the Convention guarantees a
predictable outcome of the question of the applicable law to practically any relevant
question. Moreover, the Convention ensures that in all cases, as a principle, the victim has
a right of direct action against the insurer of the liable person.
When does the Traffic Accidents Convention apply? Main rule: Article 3
The rules of the Convention apply universally; they are independent of whether the law is
that of a Contracting State or not. This makes it possible to deal with traffic accidents
wherever they occur. The main rule of the Convention is set out in Article 3: the applicable
law is the internal law of the State where the accident occurred. This place is generally
easy to determine. Should under the law of the place of the accident the victim not have
a direct right of action against the insurer of the person liable, then the victim nevertheless
has such a right if it exists under the law governing the contract of insurance.
In certain situations, the law of the place of the accident presents fewer connections with
the case than another legal system. Articles 4 and 5 deal with several categories of such
situations: Article 4 is concerned with damage to persons and to vehicles; Article 5 with
other kinds of material damage. The provisions are rather detailed, but since the reality of
cross-border traffic accidents is so complex, a certain level of detail is necessary to make
ex ante legal certainty possible.
Special Rule: Article 4 (Damage to Persons and Vehicles)
Article 4 may have the effect of setting aside the law of the place of the accident according
to two criteria: (1) whether one of more vehicles are involved, and (2) whether the persons
involved are (a) the owner, person in control of the vehicle or the driver, (b) a passenger,
or (c) a person outside the vehicle. So, for example, if a car registered in Belgium crashes
against a tree in France, the liability of the driver against the passenger will, in principle,
be determined according to Belgian law. The law of the place of the accident (France) is
less helpful in such a case, in particular to the passenger, than the law of the State of
registration of the car (Belgium). This State is likely also to be the State where both the
driver and the victim lived, the place where the insurance contract was made and the
insurer has his place of business, and, if it was a rented or a lease car, the place where the
car was hired. Only where the victim had his or her habitual residence in the place of the
accident (France), does the Convention prescribe the application of law of that place, which
again serves the victim’s interest. On the other hand, if the same car would cause damage
to a person outside the car, then since that person normally has no connection with the
car and those inside it, the law of the place of the accident – French law – will apply to the
claim of that person, unless he or she happened to live in Belgium.
When two, or more, cars registered in Germany crash in Belgium, the Convention
prescribes the application of German law to determine the liability towards the passengers
– except where the passenger lived in Belgium: then in respect of that passenger Belgian
law will apply. This rule has been helpful in particular in situations where, for example,
workers move in columns by car to or from their homelands during the holidays. The use
of the law of the place of registration of the vehicle as connecting factor will usually result
in the coincidence of the laws applicable – to the claim and the insurance contract – which
guarantees full insurance coverage.
Special Rule: Article 5 (Damage to Goods)
Article 5 deals with damage to goods. Goods belonging to the passenger follow the regime
that applies to the passenger under Articles 3 and 4. Those Articles also determine the
liability for other goods carried in the vehicle. Liability for goods outside the vehicle is, in
principle, determined by the law of the place of the accident (see for an exception
Protection of the victim
It is important to note, that where more victims are involved, the liability towards each of
them is determined separately. This has the advantage that a victim need not be concerned
with the question if other persons have also suffered damage. On the other hand, one and
the same law will govern the liability of all liable persons, if there is more than one, towards
one victim. This also simplifies the determination of the applicable law. And again, if the
law of the place of registration does not provide for a direct action against the insurer of
the person liable then the victim nevertheless has such a right if the law of the place of the
accident provides it, or, if that law does not, ultimately, the law governing the contract of
Explanatory Report; and more than 30 years of doctrine and case law
In addition to the Explanatory Report by the Swedish judge Essén, over the past thirty
years, doctrine and case law have helped to settle many – inevitably – outstanding issues,
including the question – not expressly dealt with by the Convention — whether the parties
may choose a law different from that designated by the Convention: the general view is
that they may indeed do so.
High degree of predictability attracts States
The Convention has proven its utility during the thirty years since it came into force on the
international plane. It has continued to attract new State Parties. Within the European Union,
twelve States, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg,
the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain are at this point Parties to the
Convention, while Portugal has signed but not ratified the instrument. In addition, the
following countries are Parties to the Convention: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia,
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Switzerland. The
uniformity of regime is important in light of transit movements, including those from Western
and Central Europe to the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean regions and vice versa.
The Convention is open for signature by all States that were Members of the Hague
Conference at the time of its XIth Session (1968), and for accession by all other States.
The high degree of ex ante predictability of the Convention’s rules assists in avoiding
litigation, facilitating out of court settlements, reducing individual as well as social costs
enormously, and contributing to fairness and justice in a great many cases.