Top Causes of Car Accidents

What are the top causes of car accidents? It’s a difficult question, because, usually, a crash occurs due to a number of factors. What we can say with certainty, based on our experience representing personal injury victims, is that a large number of crashes involve drivers who seem to have no regard for the safety of others.

South Carolina’s Traffic Collision Report Form provides a list of factors that police officers may choose to describe causes of a crash – 28 factors that apply to drivers, 10 roadway conditions, 10 pedestrian behaviors, six environmental conditions, and 13 vehicle defects. From all of those choices, officers may select four factors as “primary.”

Cause Classifications

In reviewing crashes, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration assigns causes based on broad categories, such as “Decision Error.” That category encompasses behaviors such as speeding, misjudging the speed of an approaching car, driving under the influence of alcohol, and aggressive driving. An individual driver could be found to have made all those errors in the moments preceding a crash, and determining which factor is most important is a matter of judgment for investigators.

The NHTSA conducted a National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, studying a representative sample of crashes from July 3, 2005, to Dec. 31, 2007, for a report to Congress. The analysis of 5,470 crashes was used to estimate how many total crashes in that same time frame could be attributed to certain causes.

The report classified data in a few ways: The primary cause (drivers, vehicles, environment, or unknown critical reasons) and driver behavior/characteristics associated with a crash. Among that second category, investigators determined the following most common causes:

  • Recognition error, such as inattention, and internal and external distractions (845,000 crashes, roughly 41 percent of all crashes between July 3, 2005 and Dec. 31, 2007)
  • Decision error, such as speeding and following too closely (684,000, or about 33 percent of crashes)
  • Performance error, such as stepping on the wrong pedal or overcorrecting while steering (210,000, or about 11 percent of crashes)
  • Non-performance error, such as falling asleep and medical emergencies (145,000, or about 7 percent of crashes)
  • Other (unspecified) driving errors (162,000, or about 8 percent of crashes).

About Recognition Errors

At the time of the NHTSA crash factor study, distracted driving was a leading cause of accidents, but it’s a problem that has become significantly worse in recent years. In 2013, distracted driving caused 3,154 fatalities.

Data from the NHTSA shows the impact of distracted driving in general, compared to distracted driving involving cellphone use:

  • In 2010, distraction was a factor in 900,000 crashes, injuring 416,000 people; cellphone-related distraction accounted for 47,000 crashes and 24,000 injuries.
  • In 2013, distraction was a factor in 904,000 crashes, injuring 424,000 people; cellphone-related distraction accounted for 71,000 crashes and 34,000 injuries.

Those numbers show that distracted driving crashes increased by only .44 percent in three years, but cellphone-related distraction crashes increased by 51 percent.

While other forms of distracted driving are dangerous, none appear to be as risky as cellphone use. That’s because using a cellphone often involves three subsets of distraction: manual (when holding or dialing a phone), visual (looking away from the road), and cognitive (thinking about tasks other than driving).

Common Decision Errors

Some decision errors really are mistakes – like when a driver makes a left turn in front of an approaching car and causes a crash, due to underestimating how fast that car was approaching. Driving under the influence, however, is often much more than a “decision error.”

While it’s true that some drivers unwittingly get behind the wheel without realizing they’re intoxicated, AAA’s DUI Justice Link provides statistics that would seem to prove many drunk drivers are likely well aware of the risks involved:

  • In 2012, 6,720 drivers involved in fatal crashes had a blood alcohol content of more than .15 – at that point of intoxication, people are likely to show major loss of balance, and vomiting may occur.
  • About one-quarter of all drivers arrested or convicted of driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of alcohol are repeat offenders.
  • Drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher involved in fatal crashes were seven times more likely to have a prior conviction for driving while impaired than were drivers with no alcohol convictions.

Other Crash Factors

Inexperience or medical conditions that affect reflexes and cognitive abilities can cause what the NHTSA calls performance errors, such as stepping on the gas instead of the brake pedal. But those types of errors, along with non-performance errors like driver medical emergencies, account for a small portion of crashes. Vehicle condition and environment also are relatively insignificant causes, resulting in approximately 1 percent of crashes in a given year, according to the NHTSA crash cause survey.

In almost all crashes, a driver’s action or inaction is largely to blame. For example, it’s usually not a slick road that causes a crash, but the manner in which someone was driving on that road.

If a crash has injured you or a loved one, we want to help determine the cause, because if another driver’s negligence is to blame, you could be entitled to compensation. To get your free consultation, fill out our online form, or call us at (803) 454-1200.