Car accidents are unintentional damaging events involving automobiles. Car accidents can damage one or more autos, people, or structures. Car accidents—also called traffic accidents, auto accidents, road accidents, road traffic accidents (RTA in many police forces' terminology) and motor vehicle accidents—cause thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of disabilities each year. The first person to die in a car accident was Bridget Driscoll in 1896. Worldwide, car accidents kill an estimated one million people each year (a 2002 statistic).
There is a debate about the use of the word accident in the context of motor-vehicle incidents. Incidents often result from carelessness or deliberate dangerous driving, rather than from circumstances beyond the control of one or more participants. Some road traffic safety authorities have started using alternative expressions such as car crashes in an attempt to educate drivers and emphasise that many incidents are entirely avoidable. Further, in some areas (e.g. Victoria (Australia)), authorities are considering counting single-vehicle single-occupant road traffic crash fatalities in that state's suicide statistics as well as in road toll statistics.
Responsibility of car manufacturers
Car makers have been both accused of making cars that go too fast, and praised for the safety measures (such as ABS) found in new models.
Trends in accident statistics
Road toll figures show that car accident fatalities have declined since 1980, with most countries showing a reduction of roughly 50%. This drop appears to confirm the efficacy of safety measures introduced thereafter, assuming that driver behaviour has not changed significantly.
Some expected greater improvements. Several explanations have been proposed:
- The number of cars is increasing, leading to more congested traffic. This argument is disputed—for example, the road toll in Australia is only about half that of the UK, despite the latter country's more than threefold size of population in an area 1/30th of the size.
- A safer car increases the perceived safety level, inducing the driver to go at higher speeds—in fact there is strong evidence to suggest that every safety advantage conferred by technology is eroded by modified driver behaviour.
- Some types of cars may be inherently less safe (see for example SUV)
- More in-car tech toys exist today. These can distract the driver from the road. These include: cell phones, TVs, pagers, computer notebooks, portable CD and DVD players, laptop computers, electronic games, computer games, GPS navigators, digital recorders, cam corders, radar detectors, and others.
Types of accidents
Car accidents fall into several major categories (whose names are self-explanatory):
- Rear-end collisions
- Side collisions
- Head-on collisions
- Single-car accidents
Collisions can occur with other automobiles, other vehicles such as bicycles or trucks, with pedestrians, and with stationary structures or objects, such as trees or road signs.
In a collision between two cars, the occupants of a car with the lower mass will likely suffer the greater consequences. See: crash incompatibility.
Causes of accidents
Many factors result in car accidents, and sometimes multiple causes contribute to a single accident. Factors include the following:
- Driver distraction, including fiddling with technical devices as noted previously, talking with passengers, eating or grooming in the car, dealing with children or pets in the back seat, or attempting to retrieve dropped items.
- Driver impairment by tiredness, illness, alcohol or drugs, both legal and illegal. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is an organization made up of the families of the dead who were killed in car accidents caused by drunk drivers.
- Mechanical failure, including flat tires or tires blowing out, brake failure, axle failure, steering mechanism failure.
- Road conditions, including foreign obstacles or substances on the road surface; rain, ice, or snow making the roads slick; road damage including pot holes.
- Speed exceeding safe conditions, such as the speed for which the road was designed, the road condition, the weather, the speed of surrounding motorists, and so on.
Many authorities emphasise speed as an inherent cause of accidents in itself, though most experts agree that speed alone is rarely a prime cause of accidents, though naturally a mis-application of speed can be a contributing factor, and higher speed in an accident resulting from whatever cause is more likely to have serious consequences. Critics of the "speed kills" mentality claim that this approach ignores the complex factors that are involved in accidents, and argue that it amounts to little more than a simplistic "quick fix" or political solution that does nothing to address the true causes of accidents. Proponents state that going slower at least can do no harm, and that physics is on their side, since the outcome of an accident largely depends on the energy dissipated in a crash, and that energy rises with the square of velocity, according to the equation E = ½ ·m·v², where E is the kinetic energy, m is the mass, and v is the velocity. The first person who died in a car accident, Bridget Driscoll, was killed by a car driving only 4 miles/h (6.5 km/h).
Car accidents often carry legal consequences in proportion to the severity of the accident. Nearly all common law jurisdictions impose some kind of requirement that parties involved in a collision (even with only stationary property) must stop at the scene, and exchange identification information or summon the police. Failing to obey this requirement is the crime of hit and run.
Parties involved in an accident may face criminal liability, civil liability, or both. Usually, the state starts a prosecution only if someone is severely injured or killed, or if one of the drivers involved was clearly intoxicated or otherwise impaired at the time the accident occurred. Charges might include driving under the influence of assault with a deadly manslaughter, or jail time to prison time to death.
As for civil liability, automobile accident personal injury lawsuits have become the most common type of tort. Because these cases have been litigated often in the developed First World nations, the legal questions usually have been answered in prior judgments. So, the court most usually decide solely the factual questions of who is at fault, and how much they (or their insurer) must pay out in damages to the injured plaintiff.
Rubbernecking is where drivers slow down to look at accidents or anything out of the ordinary on the highway. Events ranging from gruesome car accidents to a police car stopped on the shoulder can cause traffic jams on both sides of the road, even if the roadway has been cleared.
Although caution is advised when there is unexpected activity on the side of a road, a car with a flat tire on the side of a highway often causes as much slow down as a real accident would due to rubbernecking. The slowdown in traffic persists even after the accident scene has been cleared if traffic is dense. Traffic experts called this phenomenon a phantom accident. Often this behavior causes additional and sometimes more serious accidents among the rubberneckers.
Although many accidents are caused by behavior that is difficult to alter, by mechanical failure, or by road conditions, some technical solutions are becoming more widely available to prevent accidents:
- Proximity monitors: These would automatically detect how close you were traveling to the car in front of you and automatically adjust your car's acceleration to prevent you from getting closer than you can safely stop at your current speed.
- Sobriety detectors: These locks prevent the ignition key from working if the driver breathes into one and is shown to have consumed alcohol.
- Drifting monitors: These devices monitor how close a vehicle is traveling to lane markers and, if it starts to drift toward or over the markers without the turn signal being activated, sounds an alarm.
In most developed countries, young (under 25 years old) male drivers have been shown to be by far the most likely to be involved in a car accident, and this has become an area of focus in recent times. Reasons suggested for this prevalence include over-confidence, peer pressure, showing off and even neurological development arguments. In addition most serious accidents occur at night and when the car has multiple occupants. This has led to some discussion of the following proposals:
- A "curfew" imposed on young drivers to prevent them driving at night.
- Requiring an experienced supervisor to chaperone the less experienced driver.
- Forbidding the carrying of passengers.
- Zero alcohol tolerance.
- Compulsory advanced driving courses.
- Requiring a sign placed on the back of the vehicle to notify other drivers of a less-experienced individual in the driver's seat.
Some countries or states have already implemented some of these, but so far no overall consensus to a total solution has been reached. It should be noted that this prevalence has long been noted by insurance companies, and premums reflect that - however, very high premiums for young male drivers does not seem to have had a significant impact on the accident statistics, suggesting that these drivers simply accept the high premiums as part of the "on road" costs of mobility.