The top five causes of fatal car accidents and how to avoid them

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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For a long time, fatal car accident rates in the U.S. were falling. This shift began in the 1970s as safety features like seat belts and air bags increased. However, beginning in 2020, the number of fatal car accidents concerningly started to increase[1]

Here are some recent car accident stats:

  • In 2022, an estimated 42,795 people died in fatal car accidents.
  • The amount of fatal car accidents in the first half of 2023 did dip slightly below predictions, but still remains high[2].
  •  For the last four decades, the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for people age 1 to 44 is unintentional injury from motor vehicle accidents[3]

But what are the biggest contributors of fatal car accidents? In this article, we’re highlighting the root causes and looking at how to prevent these tragedies.

1. Driving while intoxicated

Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a factor in between 10,000 - 13,000 car accident deaths a year[4]. Impaired drivers pose a significant risk to themselves and others on the road.

For this reason, driving under the influence is illegal in all 50 states and even first-time offenses can lead to heavy fines, felony offenses, loss of license and other penalties.

Avoiding drunk driving

  • Make a plan for getting home before going out. 
  • If you end up drinking more than you planned, get a ride home.
  • Hosting a party? Make sure all guests leave with a sober driver.

2. Speeding

Excessive speeding is a factor in between 10,000 - 12,000 car accident deaths a year[5]. Speed limits are established for a reason, and exceeding them increases the likelihood of accidents and the severity of injuries. 

A greater number of vehicles on the road does not indicate more accidents, as long as they are adhering to speed limits. A study found that the number of cars speeding on the road is the greatest predictor of how many accidents there will be. And for those excessive speeders furiously weaving in and out of traffic…in most cases, it’s only saving them an average of 2 minutes[6].  

Avoiding speeding

  • Leave on time and allow room in your schedule for delays. 
  • Don’t follow other drivers too closely, especially at higher speeds. 
  • Steer clear of drivers that are speeding or driving aggressively.

3. Weather-related conditions

The first cause on this list not related to drivers themselves: inclement weather conditions, such as rain, snow, or fog, contribute to over 5,000 car accident deaths per year[7]. In fact, weather-related car accidents kill more people than large-scale weather disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.

Rain and wet pavement reduce friction on the road and are the top two contributors to weather-related automobile crashes. These are followed by winter weather hazards and fog, which reduces visibility.

Avoiding weather-related accidents

  • Don’t drive in inclement weather, if you can avoid it.
  • Reduce speed and maintain safe following distance.
  • Use your hazard lights if you are driving significantly below the speed limit.
  • Never drive through standing water.

4. Reckless driving

Reckless driving, characterized by aggressive maneuvers, tailgating, running red lights and otherwise disregarding traffic rules, plays a role in nearly 5,000 car accident deaths a year[8]. Essentially, reckless driving means driving without concern for the safety of other people or property. 

Depending on the severity of the offense, reckless driving can lead to heavy fines or even jail time.

Avoiding reckless driving

  • Obey all traffic laws. Don’t speed up to try to beat the red light!
  • Report drivers you see acting recklessly when it is safe to do so.

5. Distracted driving

Distracted driving contributes to around 3,500 driving deaths a year[9]. With the ubiquity of smartphones and other electronic devices, drivers often succumb to the temptation of texting, browsing or engaging in phone calls while behind the wheel. 

Often people aren’t considering the danger and imagine they’ll just momentarily flick their eyes away from the road to read a text or check their directions. However, if you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds, when driving 55 miles per hour, that’s equivalent to driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

Avoiding distracted driving

  • Turn your phone to “Do not disturb” mode before driving.
  • Confirm your directions, find your podcast and handle any messages before you hit the road.
  • Be aware of other drivers around you. If you see someone driving erratically or visibly on their phone at the wheel, keep a safe distance.

Wrapping up

Understanding the top causes of fatal car accidents in the U.S. is crucial for promoting road safety. By addressing issues such as distracted driving, speeding, DUI, reckless driving and weather-related conditions, drivers can play an active role in preventing accidents and safeguarding lives. Adhering to traffic laws, staying focused, and adopting responsible driving habits are essential steps towards creating a safer and more secure road environment for all.