The Most Common Causes of Collision
Traffic accidents happen hundreds of thousands of times per year across the country. They are so widespread and common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s public health agency, treats motor vehicle safety as one of its primary concerns. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death in the United States and a major source of patients in U.S. hospital emergency rooms.
Preventing injury-causing and fatal motor vehicle accidents starts with understanding how they happen. In this blog post, we explore the most common causes of collisions involving motor vehicles to educate the public about on-road risks and how to avoid becoming an accident statistic.
Victims of collisions have a legal right to compensation for their injuries and losses and deserve caring, compassionate legal representation in seeking that compensation from the parties at-fault in a crash.
Collisions by the Numbers
Collisions and other motor vehicle crashes take a heavy toll on American drivers, families, and communities. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), which tracks accident statistics nationwide, police report more than 6.5 million crashes annually, which, on average, result in more than 2.7 million injuries and more than 36,000 deaths.
The CDC reports that the financial cost of those crashes exceeds $75 billion annually, which does not even account for the physical and emotional suffering that traffic collisions cause victims and the families of those tragically killed.
What causes these collisions? The question may seem too broad and general to answer. Fortunately, data scientists at the CDC, the NHTSA, state-level motor departments of transportation, and other government entities spend a significant amount of time stitching together traffic accident information into a clear picture that informs public policy decisions to keep drivers and passengers safe. Their studies show that the following factors play leading roles in collisions on U.S. roads.
Drivers lose focus on the task of driving in a wide variety of circumstances. The result of that inattention, however, is a trio of depressingly common outcomes: collisions, injuries, and fatalities.
A significant proportion of driver inattention leading to accidents results from one or both of the following factors.
Scientists who study traffic accidents define a distraction as anything that draws the driver’s eyes away from the road (a visual distraction), hands away from the wheel (a motor distraction), or mind away from the complicated task of driving (a cognitive distraction). Many distractions that lead to collisions, injuries, and fatalities qualify as two or three of these forms of distraction all at once.
- Sending texts and engaging in other screen-use that involves typing, reading, or scrolling on a smartphone constitutes a triple-threat of distraction: It draws the eyes to the screen, requires at least one hand to perform, and effectively drowns out a part of the brain essential to keeping a car in a lane and rolling at a safe speed.
- Rubbernecking or any other instance of a driver’s head and/or body turning to look at something outside or inside the car also constitutes a triple distraction. The eyes leave the road ahead. The head and body turning tends to cause the driver’s hands to pull the wheel in the opposite direction, as if on a lever. And, of course, the mind wanders to the sight the driver is looking at, instead of keeping the vehicle moving straight and at a safe speed.
- In-car noise, music, or other auditory distractions, which impair a driver’s ability to focus thoughts on driving and may also drown out the sounds of hazards outside the car that a driver needs to hear to stay safe.
- Manual tasks like eating a meal on the go, checking one’s hair or makeup in a vanity mirror, or reaching for something on the floor of a vehicle all have motor, visual, and cognitive effects that can easily lead to a car departing its lane or a driver failing to perceive upcoming traffic lights, stop signs, or hazards.
- Glare from sunlight or vehicle high-beams can distract a driver from safe vehicle operation by temporarily blinding them, causing them to take a hand off the wheel to shield their eyes, or simply occupying their thoughts enough to create a tunnel vision that distracts from other visual or auditory inputs they need to keep track of to drive safely.
- Daydreaming or otherwise becoming so consumed with one’s thoughts that we lose track of what is happening around us.
Driver distraction, in other words, can happen because a driver consciously does something unsafe. However, it can also result from unconscious acts that, while perfectly human, can lead the driver into an extremely unsafe situation and, ultimately, a collision. Combating distraction involves both planning ahead for and anticipating potentially dangerous driving scenarios, and reminding oneself that the driver’s sole responsibility is driving.
Humans make a tragic mistake, in particular, in thinking they can multitask behind the wheel. Research shows that while many of us think of ourselves as master multitaskers, the overwhelming majority of us have no ability whatsoever to drive safely while also engaging in non-driving-related visual, motor, and cognitive tasks.
The other major contributor to driver inattention on U.S. roads is fatigue and drowsiness. Only recently have researchers realized the dangers of fatigue.
Consider these two stunning facts:
- Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. Nationwide, somewhere around one-third of all adults routinely get fewer than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep that they need to wake up alert and refreshed. Like the lies we tell ourselves about multitasking, Americans hold fast to some entrenched myths about sleep, perhaps none more damaging to individual and public health than that they don’t need as much sleep as everyone else. The number of people who think they operate just fine on four hours of sleep, for instance, dwarfs the number of people whose bodies and minds actually suffer no harmful effect from getting that little sleep. The vast majority are lying to themselves and suffer from chronic lack of sleep that impairs their judgment, hinders their visual and motor coordination, and devastates their physical and mental health.
- Driving drowsy is as dangerous as driving drunk. Yes, that’s right—just as dangerous. According to the CDC, a driver who has been awake for 18 hours straight suffers from the same visual, motor, and cognitive impairments as a driver with a 0.05 blood alcohol level (just shy of the legal threshold for intoxication of 0.08, and higher than the legal limit for commercial drivers, which is 0.04). Drowsy drivers nod off behind the wheel for a second or two, a phenomenon known as micro-sleeping, which is plenty long enough for a vehicle to crash. Even drivers who do not fall asleep at the wheel still suffer from slower reaction times and confused decision-making that leads to crashes.
Driving drowsy likely goes under-reported as a factor in crashes. Driver inattention, in particular, is a clear and obvious symptom of drowsiness, but it may get classified in police crash reports as a separate and distinct contributing factor from driver fatigue.
The starting point for avoiding drowsy driving is encouraging Americans to get adequate sleep, to avoid driving at the end of a long day whenever possible, and to schedule long road trips to begin soon after waking up to avoid drowsiness taking over mid-trip.
Alcohol and Drug Impairment
Drivers impaired by drugs and alcohol also cause tens of thousands of accidents per year. On average, between one quarter and one-third of all fatal collisions on U.S. roads every year involve alcohol or drug impairment.
Consuming too much alcohol before driving is illegal and extremely dangerous. Impairment from alcohol begins at the first sip of a drink and increases with further consumption. Drivers often make the mistake of thinking that if their blood alcohol content is below the legal limit, then they are safe to drive. They aren’t. Until their bodies have metabolized the alcohol they have consumed, their sight, motor coordination, and judgment will all suffer from at least some degree of impairment that increases the risk of them getting into a collision.
The same goes for taking drugs before driving, whether legal or illegal, over-the-counter or prescription. Many drivers take the wheel with senses dulled by intoxicating chemicals. Prescription drugs, in particular, present an area of concern because drivers may take them trusting that their doctors would not have prescribed medicine that puts them at risk as a driver. Drivers who do not know how a drug will affect their driving risk causing major collisions.
A third substantial contributor to collisions on U.S. roads consists of a driving offense that the vast majority of us take for granted. Studies have shown that a full two-thirds of all vehicles traveling on highways, city streets, country roads, and everywhere in between exceed the speed limit. Drivers speed because it’s a habit, because they fall behind in their daily schedules, because driving becomes an outlet for heightened emotions, and because some of them just plain like the thrill. Unfortunately, by speeding, drivers also risk other people’s lives.
Speeding vastly increases the chance of a collision resulting in injuries or death. The driver in a speeding vehicle has less time to react to a road hazard or a traffic control device. The vehicle itself needs more distance to come to a controlled stop. Speeding also makes a vehicle more susceptible to a loss of control due to weather-related road conditions, such as rain, snow, or ice.
And the force of impact increases with the speed of the vehicles involved—that is, the energy released when cars collide at 80 miles per hour is greater than the energy released by cars that collide at 55 miles per hour.
How Lawyers Help Collision Victims, No Matter the Cause
Victims of collisions caused by a driver affected by any of the factors above, or any other factor, have a legal right to compensation. An experienced motor vehicle collision injury lawyer can represent them in legal actions to secure that compensation.
The tasks a lawyer performs to recover the money victims need and deserve for their injuries and losses varies from case to case and victim to victim, but will often include:
- Investigating a collision to determine its cause. An investigation that uncovers one or more of the causes above usually points to an at-fault party who faces legal liability for paying damages to the victim.
- Evaluating the harm done to the victim because of the collision to ensure that, in any legal action seeking damages, the lawyer pursues the maximum payment available under the law;
- Treating collision victims with care and compassion, and communicating with them in easy-to-understand language;
- Negotiating with the representatives of the parties at fault for the collision to secure a fair and reasonable settlement of a collision victim’s legal claim; and
- Taking a case to court when necessary to achieve the most favorable outcome reasonably possible for a client’s claim.
Collision victims deserve caring, compassionate legal guidance during the difficult period of recovering from an injury or tragic loss.