Article: Car accident

The result of excessive speed, this cement truck rolls over into the front garden of a house. There were no injuries, but significant damage was caused.

A car accident is a collision involving an automobile (car) and anything that causes damage to the automobile, including other automobiles, telephone poles, buildings, and trees. Sometimes a car accident may also refer to an automobile striking a human or animal. Car accidents — also called traffic collisions, auto accidents, road accidents, personal injury collisions, motor vehicle accidents, and (particularly by American radio traffic reporters) crashes — kill an estimated 1.2 million people worldwide each year, and injure about forty times this number (WHO, 2004). The term "accident" is considered an inappropriate word by some, as reliable sources estimate that upwards of 90% are the result of driver negligence. In the UK the Department of Transport publish road deaths in each type of car. These statistics are available as "Risk of injury measured by percentage of drivers injured in a two car injury accident."

These statistics show a ten to one ratio of in-vehicle accident deaths between the least safe and most safe models of car.

A vehicular collision in Yate, near Bristol, England, in July 2004. The car failed to stop when the truck stopped at a roundabout. The car's hood can be seen deep under the rear of the truck. There were no injuries.

The statistics show that for popular, lightly built cars, occupants have a 6%-8% chance of death in a two car accident. (e.g. BMW 3 series 6%, Subaru Impreza 8%, Honda Accord 6%). Traditional "safety cars" such as the Volvos halve that chance (Volvo 700 4% incidence of death, Volvo 900 3%).

Despite poor performance in theoretical tests and criticism from media pundits, SUVs fare much better than 'safety cars', with the Jeep Cherokee and Toyota Land Cruiser giving 2% incidence of death in actual crashes.

Overall the four best vehicles to be in are the Jaguar XJ series 1%, Mercedes-Benz S-Class / SEC 1%, Land Rover Defender 1% and Land Rover Discovery 1%.

Motorcyclist deaths within England and Wales stand at 53% of the annual road death statistics. Scooters/mopeds up to 50cc only account for 3% of those deaths. 2% of the scooter deaths were 16-19 year olds who had not taken the CBT (Compulsory Basic Training)

(Statistics taken from 2004/2005 DSA annual road deaths percentages)

First fatality

The first fatality in a steam-driven vehicle may have been Mary Ward who on 31 August 1869 fell under a steam-driven car in Ireland [1].

In the UK, the first person to die in a petrol-driven car collision was a pedestrian, Bridget Driscoll, in 1896. The first driver/passenger deaths occurred on 25 February 1899. A 6 HP Daimler, driven by 31-year-old engineer Edwin Sewell, crashed on Grove Hill, a steeply graded road on the northern slope of Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, now in north-west London. A rear wheel collapsed after breaking its rim and the car hit a sturdy brick wall. Sewell was killed immediately when he and his passenger, a Major Richer, were thrown from the vehicle. Richer died 3 days later in hospital. The spot is now marked with a commemorative plaque.

Terminology issues

There is some debate about the appropriateness of the word accident in the context of car accidents, which generally result from carelessness or sometimes dangerous driving rather than from circumstances beyond the control of any of those involved. Some road traffic safety authorities have started using alternative expressions such as car crashes, car wrecks, collisions or incidents to emphasise that most collisions are entirely avoidable; for example, the official UK statistics formerly known as Road Accidents Great Britain (RAGB) are now known as Road Casualties Great Britain. Further, in some areas (e.g. Victoria, Australia), authorities are considering counting single-vehicle single-occupant road traffic crash fatalities in that state's suicide statistics as well as in road toll statistics.

It is thought that as many as nine out of ten injury collisions are the result of driver negligence.

Responsibility of car manufacturers

Car makers have been both accused of making cars that go too fast, and praised for the safety measures (such as ABS) found in new models.

A number of books have critically analysed the responsibility of car makers for safety. The most famous is probably Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, and more recently Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: the dangerous rise of SUVs (in Europe subtitled the world's most dangerous vehicles and how they got that way) has discussed popular concerns with the rise in popularity of the SUV.

Trends in collision statistics

Road toll figures show that car collision fatalities have declined since 1980, with most countries showing a reduction of roughly 50%. This drop appears to confirm the efficacy of safety measures introduced thereafter, assuming that driver behaviour has not changed significantly.

In the United States, fatalities have increased slightly from 40,716 in 1994 to 42,643 in 2003. Several explanations for this disappointing outcome have been proposed:

  • The number of cars is increasing, leading to more congested traffic. This argument is disputed—for example, the road toll in Australia is only about half that of the UK, despite the latter country's more than threefold size of population in an area 1/30th of the size.
  • A safer car increases the perceived safety level, inducing the driver to go at higher speeds—in fact there is strong evidence to suggest that every safety advantage conferred by technology is eroded by modified driver behaviour (see Risk compensation).
  • Some types of cars may be inherently less safe (see for example the SUV)
  • More in-car tech toys exist today. These can distract the driver from the road. These include: cell phones, TVs, pagers, portable CD and DVD players, laptop computers, electronic games, computer games, GPS navigators, camcorders, radar detectors, and others.

Whatever the reason, it has been noted that road fatality trends closely follow the so-called "Smeed's law" (after RJ Smeed, its author), an empirical rule relating injury rates to the two-thirds power of car ownership levels. Others claim that road safety improvements, not Smeed's law, are the dominant cause of lives saved. An analysis by John Adams can be found here.

Types of collisions

A rollover in Sydney, Australia on Christmas day, 2001.

Car accidents fall into several major categories (whose names are self-explanatory):

  • Head-on collisions
  • Rear-end collisions
  • Side collisions
  • Rollovers
  • Single-vehicle collisions
  • Multi-vehicle collisions
  • Backup accidents
  • Level crossing accidents
  • Suicide

Collisions can occur with other automobiles, other vehicles such as bicycles or trucks, with pedestrians or large animals (such as moose), and with stationary structures or objects, such as trees or road signs.

The result of a side collision; most cars are not as structurally sound side-to-side as they are front-to-back and damage can be more severe to the vehicle and the occupant than at the same speed in a rear-end collision.

In a collision between two cars, the occupants of a car with the lower mass will likely suffer the greater consequences. See: crash incompatibility.

Legal consequences

Car collisions often carry legal consequences in proportion to the severity of the accident. Nearly all common law jurisdictions impose some kind of requirement that parties involved in a collision (even with only stationary property) must stop at the scene, and exchange insurance or identification information or summon the police. Failing to obey this requirement is referred to as hit and run and is generally a criminal offence. Most car claims are settled without using an attorney.

Parties involved in an accident may face criminal liability, civil liability, or both. Usually, the state starts a prosecution only if someone is severely injured or killed, or if one of the drivers involved was clearly grossly negligent or intoxicated or otherwise impaired at the time the accident occurred. Charges might include driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, assault with a deadly weapon, manslaughter, or murder; penalties range from fines to jail time to prison time to death (although the death penalty is not applicable in many jurisdictions). It is notable that the penalties for killing and injuring with motor vehicles are often very much less than for other actions with similar outcomes.

As for civil liability, automobile accident personal injury lawsuits have become the most common type of tort. Because these cases have been litigated often in the developed First World nations, the legal questions usually have been answered in prior judgments. So, the courts most usually decide solely the factual questions of who is at fault, and how much they (or their insurer) must pay out in damages to the injured plaintiff.

Another element of liability involves the administrative fines or license suspension/revocation that may be imposed by civil or criminal authorities when a driver has violated the rules of the road and thus the terms of a driver's license. Such complaint may be filed by a police officer or sometimes by other witnesses of an incident.


A spin-out in Pleasanton, California in May 2006.

Rubbernecking is where drivers slow down to look at recent collisions or anything out of the ordinary on the highway. Events ranging from gruesome car accidents to a police car stopped on the shoulder can cause traffic jams on both sides of the road, even if the roadway has been cleared.

Although caution is advised when there is unexpected activity on the side of a road, a car with a flat tire on the side of a highway often causes as much slow down as a real accident would due to rubbernecking. The slowdown in traffic persists even after the accident scene has been cleared if traffic is dense. Traffic experts call this phenomenon a phantom accident. This behaviour can potentially cause additional and sometimes more-serious accidents among the distracted rubberneckers.

Studies have shown some evidence of just how dramatically rubbernecking affects traffic flow, with estimates [2] being as significant as every minute of actual congestion resulting in 10 minutes of flow-on congestion. Such impact is readily observed in the event of a crash on a major arterial route, where traffic backs up on both sides of the road at roughly equal rates.


The United States has on average 42,000 car crash related deaths a year (out of a 300 million population).

Backup accidents

Backup accidents happen when a driver reverses their car into an object, person, or another car. Although most cars come equipped with rear view mirrors, which are adequate for detecting vehicles behind a car, they are inadequate on many vehicles for detecting small children or objects close to the ground, which fall in the car's blind spot. Large trucks have much larger blind spots that can hide entire vehicles and large adults.

According to research by Kids and Cars – an organization devoted to preventing (non-traffic) motor-vehicle-related deaths and injuries – 49% of the non-traffic, non-crash fatalities involving children under 15 from 2001-2005 were caused by vehicles backing up.

The CDC reported that from 2001-2003, an estimated 7,475 children (2,492 per year) under the age of 15 were treated for automobile back-over accidents.

In its “Deaths and Injuries Resulting from Certain Non-Traffic and Non-Crash Events,” report issued in May of 2004, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that back-up accidents most often:

  • Occur in residential driveways and parking lots
  • Involve sport utility vehicles (SUVs) or small trucks
  • Occur when a parent, relative or someone known to the family is driving
  • Particularly affect children less than five years old

Prevention organizations suggest that parents use common sense, and also take safety measures such as installing cross view mirrors, audible collision detectors, rear view video camera and/or some type of reverse backup sensors.

Collision prevention

Security advice from the police after a traffic accident involving a pedestrian. Stuttgart, Germany.

Although many accidents are caused by behavior that is difficult to alter, by mechanical failure, or by road conditions, some technical solutions are becoming more widely available to prevent accidents:

  • Proximity monitors: These would automatically detect how close the driver is to the car in front and automatically adjust the car's acceleration to prevent the car from getting closer than the distance in which it can safely stop.
  • Sobriety detectors: These locks prevent the ignition key from working if the driver breathes into one and is shown to have consumed alcohol.
  • Drifting monitors: These devices monitor how close a vehicle is traveling to lane markers and, if it starts to drift toward or over the markers without the turn signal being activated, sounds an alarm.
  • Eye tracking devices: These devices (still in development) will monitor eye closure and driver inattention.
White van accident

In most developed countries, young (under 25 years old) male drivers have been shown to be by far the most likely to be involved in a car accident, and this has become an area of focus. Reasons suggested for this include inexperience combined with over-confidence, peer pressure, a desire to show off, and even neurological development arguments. In addition most serious accidents occur at night and when the car has multiple occupants. This has led to the following proposals:

  • A "curfew" imposed on young drivers to prevent them driving at night.
  • Requiring an experienced supervisor to chaperone the less experienced driver.
  • Forbidding the carrying of passengers.
  • Zero alcohol tolerance.
  • Compulsory advanced driving courses.
  • Requiring a sign placed on the back of the vehicle to notify other drivers of a less-experienced individual in the driver's seat.

Some countries or states have already implemented some of these ideas. This increased risk for the young is known to the insurance companies, and premiums reflect that; however, very high premiums for young male drivers do not seem to have had a significant impact on the accident statistics, suggesting that these drivers simply accept the high premiums as part of the "on road" costs of mobility.

See also

  • Unsafe at Any Speed
  • Defensive driving
  • Crash test dummy
  • Vehicle extrication
  • Road safety
  • Transportation safety in the United States
  • Pedestrian Safety Through Vehicle Design
  • Roadside memorial
  • List of road accidents
  • In case of emergency