Common Causes of Car Accidents

A look at different examples of driver error and other causes of vehicle accidents.

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According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2009 there were almost 11 million car accidents across the country. That is the highest number on record, and it is a figure that will likely continue to grow along with the country’s population.

Even with today’s technology and a greater emphasis on automobile safety, car accidents continue to occur. The causes of car accidents are pretty varied, but it is important for all of us -- as members of the motoring public -- to understand the most common causes of car accidents so that we can make every effort to prevent them.

There are two broad categories of causes when it comes to car accidents. The first is driver error, and the second category encompasses everything else. According to studies done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as by various states, driver error is by far the largest single cause of car accidents in the United States.

What Causes Driver Error?

Within the category of driver error lays a variety of different types of driving behaviors that lead to car accidents. Driver error is most often the result of “distracted driving.” By far the most common cause of driver distraction is the use of cell phones. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), 25% of all automobile crashes are related to cell phone use, whether by talking on the phone or texting.

Why is this the case? Much of our decision-making while driving is a result of the “Myth of Multitasking”, as described in a recent study by the NSC. Medical studies have shown that the human brain is physiologically incapable of performing two important tasks as the same time. Rather, the brain engages in “micro-tasking.” The brain handles only one task at a time, but it switches very quickly, back and forth between competing tasks.

Because the brain cannot adequately process all of the information coming in, the brain selects to process only a part of the information. The result? We fall victim to the assumption that we are dealing with both tasks adequately, when in fact we are not effectively accomplishing either task.

The question then arises -- How does this attempt at multitasking affect our driving? As drivers, the likelihood of avoiding any hazard depends largely on our ability to first perceive the hazard, and then take appropriate action to avoid it. The proper response can mean the difference between safely avoiding a road hazard and causing an accident. The margin of error is often only a matter of seconds. If the driver is engaged in an activity such as texting on a phone or adjusting the radio, the brain is less likely to perceive road hazards in sufficient time to allow for a safe response. (Learn more about Car Accidents Caused by Phone Use.)

Other driver-based decisions also lead to car accidents, and they can operate in much the same way as distractions. According to recent statistics compiled by the NHTSA, alcohol was a factor in more than 40% of all automobile fatalities. A driver’s decision to consume alcohol and then get behind the wheel of a car results in decreased reaction time, poor vision, and poor decision-making.

Driving while fatigued has similar effects on drivers. Not only is a fatigued driver more likely to fall asleep while driving, but fatigue also slows reaction times when it comes to responding to hazards on the road. An intoxicated driver or a fatigued driver is much more likely to miss a traffic control signal such as a stop sign, compared with an alert driver.

Speeding is another source of driver error, and it is a common cause of accidents among young drivers. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), teen drivers are more likely to speed than adult drivers, and male teens are more likely to speed compared with their female counterparts. Those most likely to speed are also the least experienced drivers, and the least equipped to deal with a high-speed hazard encountered while driving. Poor decision-making also leads drivers to drive too fast for local conditions such as poor weather or bad visibility.

Causes of Car Accidents Not Related to Driver Error

There are also a number of non-driver related causes of car accidents. The physical condition of the roadway can play a significant role in causing a car accident. If a road is improperly maintained, that may make it difficult to maintain traction or to stop in time for a hazard. (Learn more about car accidents caused by road conditions.)

The same holds true for weather conditions. Moisture -- whether from rain or snow -- can make a roadway slippery, again affecting driving conditions. Weather can also impair visibility when conditions include fog, rain, or snow.

The mechanical performance of your car can also play a role in the cause of accidents. A failure to properly maintain the brake system or tires may impede your ability to stop a car in advance of a hazard. Other mechanical issues may reduce your ability to steer clear of any hazard you encounter on the roadway.

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