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5 Leading Causes of Car Crashes

leading causes of car crashes

We all know driving is inherently dangerous. And most of us think we’re good drivers. Obviously, it is everyone else on the road causing problems. Since 94% of car crashes are caused by human error, we may want to take another look at our driving.

There are roughly 5 million reported car crashes in the US every year. (Another 5 million are suspected to go unreported.) While most crashes are relatively minor, an average of 37,000 lives are lost (38,800 in 2019) every year in the US. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of injuries.

leading causes of car crashes

Surprisingly, reports are showing fatalities from car crashes may not have necessarily gone down during the 2020 pandemic. Apparently the empty roads caused a jump in speeding and reckless driving. NHTSA found an increase in the number of people killed compared to the number of overall miles traveled.

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Car manufacturers have been taking steps to reduce car crashes with car safety features like lane change assist and forward collision systems. However until self driving cars proven safe and are a thing for everyone on the road, crashes will still happen.

Here are the leading causes of car crashes and what you can do to prevent them.

The Leading Causes Of Car Crashes and how to do your part

The percentages vary by year so we’ll just go based on an average estimate. Speeding and drunk driving are neck and neck causing roughly a third of fatal crashes each. Distracted driving comes in third at about 16% of fatal crashes.

However, NHTSA reported in 2010 that 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes involved some form of driver distraction within the three seconds prior. The most recent study we found looked at years 2012-2015. NHTSA reported an average of 42.25% of reported crashes involving distracted driving. So distracted driving tops out as the leading cause for car crashes.

1. Distracted Driving

NHTSA estimates 3,166 people were killed in 2017 because of driver distraction.

Almost all drivers today have cell phones that divert their attention away from the task at hand — driving. According to NHTSA, reading a text while driving can draw your attention for 5 seconds, the equivalent of driving the length of a football field at 55 mph.

But it’s not just texting. There are a number of distractions that drivers partake in, including eating or drinking, applying makeup, changing the radio station, making or receiving phone calls, talking with passengers, or even looking at the scenery. Can you believe there are some people who read — maps, newspapers, books, or other documents — while driving?

Don’t be part of the problem: Avoid distractions.

Sounds simple enough, right? Realistically, however, you can’t avoid all distractions. Your passengers will talk to you while driving. (Unless you’re driving with teens; they may not talk to you.) You will sometimes need to look at whatever GPS system you are using to make your next turn if you are driving somewhere new.

The point is to reduce the distractions as much as possible. Leave the phone in the back seat, on silent or turned on driving mode. Pull over to read the map. (Does anyone read maps anymore?) Play with the radio at a stop light. You get the idea.

speeding causes of car crashes

2. Speeding

It can be tempting to speed when you’re running late. But, as mentioned earlier, speeding accounts for roughly a third (26% to 31% depending on the year) of car crashes that result in fatalities.

Speeding can mean both driving faster than a posted speed limit or driving too fast for road conditions. It may be obvious that driving at 100 mph is dangerous. But even driving a 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit can be dangerous, especially in certain conditions. The faster you are driving the less time you have to react. Plus the faster you are driving the greater the forces will be on the your body, if you do collide with something.

Don’t be part of the problem: Drive the speed limit.

Traffic engineers determine maximum speed limits allowable for safe travel on our roads. They determine speed limits based on road conditions, ie. curves or congestion, and on traffic flow. Hint: they also time the lights based on this, in case you ever wondered why speeding just made you hit more red lights.

Which brings up another point. In most cases speeding doesn’t make up time when you are running late. Whereas it does increase the likelihood of a crash which ultimately will make you infinitely later.

Download our free PDF guide: Safer Driving During Pregnancy

3. Driving Under the Influence

According to NHTSA, drunk-driving crashes claim more than 10,000 lives every year, again accounting for about a third of lives lost in car crashes.
We all know intellectually that driving under the influence is dangerous, deadly and illegal. And while the rate has fallen over the past few decades, people are still driving drunk. Men are more likely than women to be driving drunk in fatal crashes. And teens, who already have higher accident rates than older drivers, also drive drunk.

It is illegal to operate any vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher. But even a rate of .02% drivers have some loss of judgement, decline in visual function and slowed reflexes. Drugs, both legal or illicit drugs, can have similar impairments on your driving ability.

Don’t be part of the problem: Never drive under the influence.

If you plan on having anything to drink or doing any type of drugs, plan on a way home either having a sober friend drive you or calling a taxi or ride share service. Follow the instructions on your prescription drugs. If they say do not operate heavy machinery, that means no driving while on the medication.

4. Outside Conditions

Darkness. Snow. Rain. Fog. These are common outside conditions that can be a cause of car crashes. Some outside conditions like sun glare, night, fog and heavy precipitation impairs driver visibility. Winter roads of snow or ice and wet, rainy roads impairs directional control, especially on bridges or overpasses, and can cause sliding or hydroplaning.

Most people intuitively perceive driving in bad weather as dangerous. Statistics prove it. There are an average of 1.2 million weather related car crashes every year. This accounts for 22% of all car accidents and an average of 5,376 deaths a year.

Potholes are another road condition that are aggravating to hit and can cause car crashes if you swerve to miss one but hit traffic in other lanes.

Don’t be part of the problem: Limit driving at night or in bad weather.

Sure, you can’t always avoid driving in inclement weather. But do, if at all possible. If visibility is too low to see well or the roads seem especially slick, pull over to wait until the storm passes. If you live in a place that normally has winter driving conditions, make sure you have appropriate tires to help keep you driving safely.

left hand turn cause car crashes

5. Turning Left

Making a left-hand turn is one of the most dangerous driving maneuvers and one of the leading causes of car crashes. Many crashes are caused by drivers misjudging their left-hand turns. This results in hitting the median, another car or being hit by oncoming traffic. So many crashes occur during left-hand turns that traffic engineers designed what’s called a diverging diamond.

Mike Pehl from Coaching New Drivers says,”These new interchanges just might reduce left turn crashes on freeway entrances by 60%.” At first glance this new interchange looks a bit confusing, however, according to the Department of Transportation these interchanges are easy to navigate, eliminate last-minute lane changes and provide better sight distance at turns, which results in fewer crashes. The design also reduces congestion and better moves high volumes of traffic without the need to increase the number of lanes in an interchange.

Don’t be part of the problem: Look

When turning left, always make sure you have enough time and space to properly and safely execute your turn. Always scan both ways for oncoming traffic. This is the best way to avoid side impact crashes.

Other common causes of car crashes

  • Drowsy driving. According to NHTSA, drowsy driving causes about 100,000 car crashes every year. Drowsy drivers experience loss of focus, heavy eyelids and the ability to misjudge traffic situations.
  • Reckless or aggressive driving. Reckless driving like running red lights, tailgating or weaving through traffic is described as driving with willful disregard for the safety of others or their property and can result in a citation as well as car crashes.
  • Design defects. It’s not unheard of that some car crashes are caused by flaws in the car itself whether a manufacturer defect or lack of regular maintenance.
  • Man made hazards. Construction zones can be confusing to drivers with lane variations or unclear signage. Malfunctioning traffic lights also are cause for confusion and car crashes.
  • Tire blowouts. A blowout will usually catch you off guard and create drag on the car which can make it want to veer. Stay calm and gently correct your steering, once back under control ease your foot off the gas to slow down, use only slight braking and pull off the road.
  • Animal crossing. This can’t always be avoided — like the deer that literally ran into the side of my car; I was watching it, it wasn’t moving, I kept going then suddenly bam into the passenger side — and can be dangerous. Slow down and keep on the lookout in areas where animals may run out.

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Driving safely reduces the risk of getting into a crash. However, it is true there are other people on the road and they may not practice as much caution. To stay safe, the best thing to do is drive safely yourself and stay aware of what is going on around you changing your driving as necessary to avoid dangerous situations. For instance, if you see someone swerving ahead of you slow down at least until you are able to pass with a safe distance between you.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2020 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

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