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Top 3 Causes of Car Accident Fatalities

There is no doubt that traffic accidents are a major public health issue in the United States. Of all accidental deaths occurring in those less than 20 years of age, motor vehicle or motor vehicle-related deaths account for as many as 50% of all such deaths.

The real tragedy behind these numbers is that, like all accidental deaths, these deaths could have been prevented if only the driver had not engaged in reckless or negligent behavior in the hours immediately preceding the accidents that took their life.

Based on a combination of data sources, and taking into consideration the variability in how such data is initially classified, the three leading causes of traffic accident fatalities are:

  • Driving While Impaired / Driving Under the Influence (~ 30%)
  • Reckless Driving (~ 20 – 30%)
  • Distracted Driving (~ 25%)

Driving While Impaired / Driving Under the Influence

Alcohol is probably the greatest direct cause or contributing factor to motor vehicle fatalities among all age groups, as a skilled car accident lawyer Phoenix AZ can explain. If blood alcohol levels of 0.06 or greater are included as evidence of impairment causing or contributing to a fatality in those under the age of 19, the rate climbs to between 40 and 50%.

The number of annual deaths attributed to alcohol or drugs is hard to pin down because different groups or agencies tend to use different criteria for deciding at what blood alcohol level impairment actually occurs. Compounding the problem is the lack of a suitable test that can rapidly and reliably measure the levels of THC (marijuana) or amphetamine and norephedrine (methamphetamine) in a post-mortem blood sample. Given these caveats, the numbers that are generated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are usually considered as being the most objective.

The CDC identifies DWI/DUI as being responsible for 31% of all motor vehicle accidents in the United States. This number is usually disputed by other groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as being too low (MADD claims that around 50% of all traffic deaths can be attributed to alcohol and/or drugs).

Reckless Driving

Federal agencies (e.g., National Highway Safety Administration) that compile data from state traffic reports generally cite “reckless driving” as the cause of approximately 20 – 30% of traffic accident deaths.

Although “reckless driving” is usually listed as the second-leading factor in fatal motor vehicle accidents, the statistics here are subject to the same overlap as noted in other causes of accidental deaths. As an example, “speeding” can mean “driving over the posted speed limit” or it could mean “driving too fast for conditions” such as weather or the presence of road construction, and could conceivably include “road rage” as well.

Distracted Driving

As is the case with DWI/DUI statistics, the percentage of accidental deaths attributed to distracted drivers depends on which organization is doing the counting, and ranges anywhere from 25% to 50%, with the lower number based on eyewitness accounts of the driver’s behavior immediately prior to an accident, while the latter percentage tends to reflect a “looser” or “wider” definition of distracted driving, such as including deaths resulting from “road rage” in the statistic.

Regardless of criteria for inclusion in distracted driving deaths, there is no argument that the majority of all traffic accident fatalities are due to negligence or willful disregard for the safety of others.


Thanks to our friends and contributors from Lorona Mead, PLC for their insight into car accident cases.

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Steve Harrelson
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