What Are the Main Causes of Traffic Accidents?

by Rocco Pendola

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that motor vehicle traffic-related accidents accounted for 43,664 deaths. These fatalities made up 24.4 percent of all injury deaths in 2006. Along with poisoning, firearms and falls, traffic deaths were responsible for almost three-quarters of injury-related deaths. Among the leading causes--alcohol, teenage drivers and speeding.


David J. Hanson, Ph.D., a professor at Potsdam University writes that it is not always the case that alcohol-related traffic accidents are caused by alcohol and that the exact number is unknown. Evidence exists that alcohol negatively impacts driving skills and drunkenness hurts driving performance. Hanson notes that even when sober, those who often drive drunk--typically young, single males with an addiction problem--are at risk for auto crashes. Hanson points to evidence, though, that alcohol frequently contributes to traffic accidents. A study in Monroe County, New York, showed that sober drivers were responsible for accidents between 34 and 43 percent of the time, while drunk drivers were responsible 74 to 90 percent of the time.


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that speeding contributes to 33 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S. In 2008, crashes involving speeding claimed the lives of 11,674 people. IIHS reports that, in the same year, speeding factored into about 16 percent of property-damage only crashes and 19 percent of crashes resulting in injury. IIHS cites a 2009 study that estimates 12,545 deaths can be attributed to the 1995 repeal of the national speed limit. IIHS research shows that crash deaths on rural interstates increased by 25 to 30 percent as states started raising speed limits from 55 to 65 mph in 1987.


The California Department of Motor Vehicles reports that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. IIHS reports that, in 2005, a third of all deaths of young people, ages 16 to 19, are attributable to traffic accidents. Teens are at the greatest risk of being involved in a crash early on in their driving careers. IIHS also contends that teens are more often at fault in accidents than other groups. Their accidents and infractions tend to be speeding-related, involve night driving and occur as solo crashes more frequently than older drivers. IIHS assessed that immaturity and inexperience are the reasons why teenagers cause a disproportionate amount of overall traffic accidents. The California DMV suggested that distraction plays a role as well, with 16 and 17 year old drivers 3.6 times more likely to crash when driving with passengers.


Injury and death happens frequently in urban crashes.

IIHS says that most traffic accidents (57 percent in 2008) occur in rural areas. Injury and death, however, is more likely in urban crashes. In 2008, 72 percent of pedestrian deaths took place in urban areas. About half of all urban traffic accidents happen at intersections. Speeding, red-light running, going through stop signs and rear-ending a vehicle are the most common causes of motor vehicle crashes in urban America.

About the Author

As a writer since 2002, Rocco Pendola has published numerous academic and popular articles in addition to working as a freelance grant writer and researcher. His work has appeared on SFGate and Planetizen and in the journals "Environment & Behavior" and "Health and Place." Pendola has a Bachelor of Arts in urban studies from San Francisco State University.

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