Common Causes of Car Accidents

Most car accidents are caused by driver error. Here are the most common driver mistakes, together with some other causes.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

Even with ever-improving technology and a greater emphasis on vehicle safety, the United States averages around six million car accidents each year, from fender-benders to head-on collisions. Especially when you're making a car accident injury claim, it helps to have an understanding of the common denominators behind a lot of these crashes.

Let's have a look at some of the most common reasons for auto accidents.

Car Accident Causes Fall Into Two Categories

There are two broad categories of causes when it comes to fault for car accidents. The first is driver error, including distraction, driving under the influence, inexperience and bad decision-making, and driver fatigue.

The second category, causes unrelated to driver error, encompasses everything else. Included here are external causes that might be no one's direct fault, such as a deer crossing the road, or brake failure.

Driver Error Is the Leading Cause of Crashes

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studies, driver error is by far the leading cause of car accidents in the United States. Driver error includes these specific kinds of mistakes:

  • distracted driving
  • driving under the influence
  • inexperience and poor decision-making, and
  • fatigue.

Distracted Driving

The most common type of driver error is distracted driving. In theory, that could mean everything from talking to (or having an argument with) a passenger, to reading roadside billboards. But in reality, by far the most common cause of driver distraction is the use of phones and other electronic devices.

According to the Chicago Tribune, in 2017, one in four drivers used a cell phone right before being involved in a car accident. Sending or reading a text reportedly takes a driver's eyes off the road for a full five seconds. At 50 miles per hour, your car travels roughly 88 feet per second. In the time your eyes are off the road to read a text message, your car travels 440 feet, or almost the length of one-and-a-half football fields.

Why is driver distraction so prevalent? Much of our poor decision-making while driving is a result of efforts to multitask, as described in a recent study by the National Safety Council.

Medical studies have shown that the human brain is physiologically incapable of performing two important tasks at the same time. Rather, the brain engages in "micro-tasking"—handling only one task at a time, but toggling back and forth between competing tasks.

Because the brain cannot adequately process all incoming information, it elects to process only a part of the information. The result? We fall victim to the assumption that we're dealing with both tasks adequately, when in fact we're not effectively accomplishing either one.

How does this attempt at multitasking affect our driving? As drivers, the likelihood of avoiding hazards depends largely on our ability first to perceive the hazard, and then take appropriate action to avoid it.

The margin of error is often mere seconds, or even fractions of a second. If a driver is texting 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 cell phone use.)

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

According to statistics compiled by NHTSA, alcohol is 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.

Inexperience and Poor Decision-Making

Other driver-based decisions also lead to car accidents. The decision to speed, tailgate, or make a risky pass can result in a crash before the driver has time to correct a bad choice. Poor decision-making also leads to unsafe speeds considering local conditions like weather and visibility.

Almost one in three crash deaths in the United States involves speeding, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Speeding is a particularly common cause of accidents among young drivers. The CDC says 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, who are poorly equipped to deal with high-speed hazards encountered while driving.

(Learn more about car accidents caused by negligence.)

Driver Fatigue

A tired driver presents many of the same dangers as one driving under the influence. Not only is a tired driver more likely to fall asleep while driving, but fatigue also slows reaction times in response to road hazards. An intoxicated driver or a fatigued driver is much more likely to miss a traffic signal or stop sign, compared with an alert driver.

(Learn more about car accidents caused by drowsy driving.)

Car Accidents Unrelated to Driver Error

Some accidents aren't caused by driver error but by external factors such as:

  • road conditions
  • weather conditions, and
  • mechanical performance.

Road Conditions

The physical condition of the roadway can play a significant role in causing a car accident. If a road is improperly maintained, that can reduce wheel traction or make it difficult for a car to stop in time to avoid a hazard.

(Learn more about car accidents caused by road conditions.)

Weather Conditions

The same holds true for weather conditions. Ice or moisture, whether from rain or snow, can make a roadway slippery, which again affects driving conditions. Weather can also impair visibility when conditions include fog, heavy rain, or snow.

Mechanical Performance

The mechanical performance of your car can also play a role in causing accidents. Failure to properly maintain the brake system or tires can impede your ability to stop in advance (or steer clear) of a hazard.

Why Does Fault Matter?

Car accidents can result in extensive vehicle damage and serious personal injuries. Everyone involved is likely to turn to their insurance company for help, or to make a claim against the other party.

The success of a car accident claim, however, often depends on establishing that the other driver was to blame. Understanding why accidents happen—especially accidents caused by driver error—can help you piece together what happened and who might be legally responsible.

Get more information:

Get Help With Your Car Accident Claim

If you've been in a wreck and think you might have a car accident claim, take the time to find out how a car accident lawyer can help. An experienced lawyer understands how auto accidents happen, and is used to sorting through the facts to find out who's to blame. If you're ready to move forward, here's how to find the right attorney for you and your case.

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