Car accidents that cause injuries have happened virtually since automobiles were invented. The first recorded accidental injury occurred in 1869. An Irish woman named Mary Ward was thrown out of the steam-powered carriage she was riding in when it hit an especially deep rut in the road. She was immediately crushed by one of the wheels, her injuries causing an instantaneous death. Her cousin had actually been the inventor of this new type of vehicle, in a cruel example of irony.
Over the last 25 years or so, car accident injuries resulting in deaths have declined an impressive 50% worldwide. This is due primarily to increased emphasis by both governments and car manufacturers on safety, including the standard use of air bags to reduce the number of severe injuries and deaths caused by front and side car-to-car collisions.
Sadly, the United States is one of the few nations where injuries and fatalities caused by cars have increased over this same period. Experts suggest that this has several causes, including an increased number of motorists overall, a steady increase in the number of large trucks and SUVs sold, and a sharp rise in the numbers of people using cell phones and other technological gadgets while driving their cars.
Another common cause of car accident injuries is ‘rubbernecking.’ This is the term for slowing down (sometimes suddenly) to look at an unusual situation happening on the road (or nearby). Often, people do this to check out car accidents, which can cause other motorists farther back who are not paying close attention to fail to slow down or stop in time. Rubbernecking is the #1 cause of all rear-end car accidents and, in particular, whiplash injuries, in the United States.
Car accident prevention designed to reduce injury and fatality numbers focuses on technology and changing human behavior while behind the wheel. Modern cars and trucks are equipped with air bags, and proximity and drift monitors are becoming more common as well. Both emit loud tones to alert the car’s driver that the vehicle is entering a dangerous area. In Europe, this has been shown to reduce accidental injuries from both car-to-car collisions and single-car accidents.
Changing driver behaviors to reduce car accidents is a tougher nut to crack – especially in the United States, where car ownership is embedded in the culture. People spend so much time in their cars today that it results in a sense of invulnerability. The subsequent lack of defensive driving is one of the reasons why accidental injuries from car collisions in America are bucking the worldwide downward trend.
Perhaps surprisingly, U.S. states with less restrictive speed limit laws actually have a slightly lower incidence of car accidents that cause injuries or deaths. This can partially be explained by a lower number of cars on the road per capita vs. some of the states with lower speed limits. However, even when adjusted for this effect, the statistics still show a slight edge to states with higher limits. Advocates of stricter enforcement of posted speed limits may be pursuing the wrong strategy, if the goal is the prevention of car accident injuries.
A better approach to accident prevention should probably focus on two areas that lead to many serious auto accidents: driver distractions and age. Cell phones are becoming the biggest distraction, and more and more states are banning their use by the driver while the vehicle is in motion. Even if you live where it is permissible, it’s an extremely bad idea! Recent studies have shown a clear connection between phone use and car accidents.
Driver age has an interesting correlation with car accidents that cause injuries and deaths. At both ends of the spectrum, ages 16-20 and 70+, a much higher percentage of accidents occur than with other age ranges. Accident prevention based on the driver’s age is not easily implemented, but calls by the public and advocacy groups are on the increase. Some suggestions include mandatory driver education courses, annual driver examinations to reassess abilities, and even a magnetic sticker or decal on all cars driven by a person falling into either age demographic. The latter entails the idea that alerting other drivers will increase their defensive driving attention, reducing the frequency of accidents.