The Science of Car Crashes

Broken glass on road after a car accidentBroken glass on road after a car accident

From lane departure warnings to automatic emergency braking, drivers today have more technology than ever to help avoid car accidents. You might expect safer roads as a result, but the number of traffic fatalities has risen, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Taking a scientific approach to what causes car accidents can help us better understand – and potentially avoid – them in the future.

Why Are There More Fatal Car Accidents?

Likely factors behind the rise in deadly car crashes include an increase in distractions, and more vehicle miles traveled due in part to lower gas prices and the economic recovery.1 “Americans are covering more miles, and are more distracted, than they were a decade ago,” explains Chris Hayes, a Travelers Risk Control safety professional. “Safety technology can only do so much to offset risky driving behavior.” Reducing distractions, from smartphone use to eating while driving, can help drivers remain alert and able to react quickly, giving them a better chance to avoid an accident.

What Role Do Drivers Play in an Accident?

Despite all of the new safety technology, in 94 percent of car accidents, the crash was related to the driver, according to NHTSA.2 Often, an unexpected event and period of inattention go hand in hand. Maintaining focus on the roadway is important because unexpected events are a part of everyday driving. Even at their most efficient, the interactions between a driver’s perception and a vehicle’s brakes isn’t instantaneous. Responding to an unexpected event happens in three distinct phases: perception, reaction and avoidance. There’s the moment that the driver perceives (or doesn’t) the potential hazard, the driver’s reaction time (or failure to react) and the steps the driver takes (or doesn’t) to avoid an accident.

What Causes a Car Accident?

To a driver, getting into an accident may feel like a stroke of bad luck – a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps. There’s some truth to the idea of timing. It’s generally safer to drive during daylight hours instead of overnight, when visibility is lower and other drivers are likely to be fatigued or driving under the influence, for example.

While there’s an element of chance in an accident, often it’s due to a series of connected events that can be deciphered to discover the root cause of the crash. It can mean that a small mistake, when compounded with another factor, can lead to a serious car accident. But safe drivers who are prepared to react to that root cause can help prevent a more serious accident than drivers who are not prepared. Safe driving is more than simply driving the speed limit; it’s about anticipating when a curve in the road ahead or inclement weather requires drivers to slow down and be extra alert.

Science of car crashes quoteScience of car crashes quote

How Do You Deconstruct a Car Accident?

“A car accident involves more than the impact itself,” said Hayes. To an accident analysis team, there are three distinct pre-accident elements to analyze within a car crash: an unsafe maneuver (often speeding), an unexpected event, and a period of inattention.

For example, a driver distracted by a cell phone or even a conversation with another passenger might fail to perceive a truck running a stoplight up ahead. If the driver was traveling too fast for road conditions, it might decrease reaction time. A slick road surface can affect the coefficient of friction, which can affect how long it takes to safely come to a stop or avoid an accident.

Driving at a safe speed for road conditions and a safe following distance can help to give drivers the time they need to react to conditions that could lead to an accident. Or as Hayes states, “maintaining speed and following distance is important because it gives a driver time to respond to unexpected events.”

While it’s not possible to completely eliminate your chances of getting into a car accident, even seemingly small choices you make every day behind the wheel, like setting your GPS before you leave your driveway, can play a significant role in whether you safely reach your destination. Being prepared to identify and respond to danger can help you make a potentially life-saving decision when seconds count.

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