Understanding the dangers along American roadways

Paul McDonnold

America’s roadways are getting safer. In 2010, U.S. traffic deaths fell to their lowest level ever, down 3 percent from the previous year. But still, nearly 32,800 traffic deaths in one year is hardly good news. Given those numbers, how can drivers protect themselves?

One way is through a better understanding of roadway dangers. One of the general characteristics of accident risk is that rural roadways experience the most traffic deaths, says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “But the more mundane, everyday fender-benders are more likely to happen in urban settings,” he says.

Parking lots are common places for such fender-benders. But even these can involve serious expense and injury. One strategy AAA recommends is parking away from a building entrance during busy times, when drivers may be aggressively jockeying for parking spots near the front door.

In 2008, more than three-fourths of U.S. car crashes happened in urban settings. Almost half of those occurred at intersections, where opposing paths of travel can magnify the force of impact, raising the potential for injury and damage.

Types of fatal crashes

Chuck Veppert, president of the National Association of Professional Accident Reconstruction Specialists, divides fatal car wrecks into three categories:

  • Single-vehicle crashes.
  • Two-vehicle crashes.
  • Multivehicle crashes.
Single-vehicle fatal crashes are most common on more modern, higher-speed roadways. Two-vehicle crashes, on the other hand, are a particular problem on county roads, where speeds may be high but lanes can be narrow, with nothing separating opposing traffic but a line of paint and steady nerves. For multivehicle crashes, the most common setting moves back to more traveled roads such as state highways; this type of fatal crash also is more likely to occur in an urban setting.

Time and temperature

The number of fatal accidents, it turns out, is about the same during the day and night. But it’s also the case that roads are busier during the day, with some three times as many miles being driven. However, drinking and driving is common at night, which boosts the risk of a fatal crash after sundown.

As for weather, wet, slushy or icy conditions are involved in about 16 percent of fatal accidents, so most fatal crashes occur on dry roads.

Rounding the curve

While the majority of fatal accidents occur on straight roads, a much higher percentage of single-vehicle crashes happen on curved roads (34 percent) than is the case with either two-vehicle or multivehicle crashes, lending some credence to the "dead man’s curve" legend.

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