5 of the most common causes of car crashes

Emmet Pierce

There's nothing you can do to guarantee you won't be involved in a car crash, but being aware of the most common causes of crashes may help you avoid them.

causes of car crashesThe best way to stay safe is to drive defensively and observe the rules of the road. It's important to remember that crashes can happen anywhere people drive, says National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spokesman Jose Alberto Ucles.

"Crashes don’t discriminate," he says. "They affect all ages, races and types of people."

There's plenty of motivation to play it safe. In addition to endangering your life, a crash can result in higher auto insurance premiums. Drivers with histories of accidents are considered to be greater insurance risks.  

Here are five of the most common causes of crashes.

5 common causes of car crashes

1. Driving under the influence of alcohol.

One of the most dangerous things you can do is drive while under the influence of alcohol. The NHTSA reports that in 2011, 9,878 driving deaths nationally were caused by drunken drivers. Drunken driving was a factor in 31 percent of all traffic deaths.

Men are more likely than women to drive while intoxicated.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 82 percent of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2009 were men.

Although alcohol remains a serious driving problem, "in the 1980s it was worse," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "(Then) about half of fatally injured drivers were impaired by alcohol."

He attributes the decline in alcohol-related deaths to pub advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD, who have raised awareness of drunk driving among Americans.

2. Speeding.

The NHTSA says speeding ranks just behind alcohol use as a cause of fatal car crashes. In 2011, speeding was a factor in 30 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths.

Young male drivers are the most likely group to speed. In 2011, 76 percent of male drivers aged 15- to 24-years-old involved in fatal crashes were speeding. Men and women older than 55 were the least likely drivers to speed.

The NHTSA reports that your likelihood of dying in a fatal crash while speeding depends on the size of the vehicle you drive. For example, in 2011, 35 percent of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, compared to 22 percent of passenger car drivers, 19 percent of light-truck drivers, and 8 percent of large-truck drivers.

3. Driving while distracted.

Nearly 10 percent of all crashes in which one or more people were injured in 2011 involved distracted drivers, according to Distraction.gov, the federal government's driver-distraction website. In addition, 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in such crashes.

Teen drivers often lose focus, says Rob Richardson, a spokesman for the Drive Smart Virginia traffic safety group. "They are heavily involved in using their phone," he says. "They watch videos when they are driving."

Distracted driving includes anything that takes your mind off the road, says Richard Weinblatt, a former traffic officer who serves as the dean of the School of Public and Social Services at Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College.

While talking and texting on cellphones often is blamed for distracted driving, Weinblatt says there are many other causes of distracted driving, such as  eating at the wheel or combing your hair.

Young drivers have the highest proportion of traffic deaths involving distractions, the NHTSA reports. Eleven percent of all drivers younger than 20 who were involved in fatal crashes in 2011 were classified as distracted.

4. Driving while tired.

A study released in November 2010 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 16.5 percent of fatal crashes involved tired drivers. In addition to lack of sleep, the NHTSA says reasons for fatigue include using sedatives, drinking alcohol and driving long distances without a break.

Weinblatt says drivers are most likely to doze while driving long distances on freeways. "You see it a lot," he says. "They fall asleep and they start drifting."

According to the NHTSA, adults between ages 18 and 29 are the most likely group to drive while drowsy and men are almost twice as likely as women to fall asleep behind the wheel.

5. Running red lights.

In 2011, 714 people were killed and about 118,000 were injured in crashes that involved running red lights, according to the IIHS. About half of the deaths consisted of pedestrians, bicyclists and occupants of vehicles struck by cars running red lights.

According to the IIHS, drivers involved in such crashes are most likely to be young men with prior crashes or drunken driving convictions.

Law enforcement cameras that photograph cars running red lights can reduce crashes, but some communities have discontinued their use because of complaints that they violate privacy rights, Weinblatt says. Even so, a 2011 IIHS survey in 14 large U.S. cities found that two-thirds of drivers were in favor of their use.

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