Road traffic injuries represent about 25% of worldwide injury-related deaths (the leading cause), with an estimated 1.2 million deaths (2004) each year. Automobile accidents are almost as old as automobiles themselves. Early examples include Mary Ward, who became one of the first document automobile fatalities in 1869 in Parsonstown, Ireland, and Henry Bliss, one of the United State’s first pedestrian automobile casualties in 1899 in New York.
A car accident or car crash is an incident in which an automobile collides with anything that causes damage to the automobile, including other automobiles, telephone poles, buildings, or trees, or in which the driver loses control of the vehicle and damages it in some other way, such as driving into a ditch or rolling over. Sometimes a car accident may also refer to an automobile striking a human or animal.
Car crashes — also called road traffic accidents (RTAs), traffic collisions, auto accidents, road accidents, personal injury collisions, motor vehicle accidents (VMAs) — kill an estimated 1.2 million people worldwide each year and injure about forty times this number (WHO, 2004). In the UK, the Department of Transport publishes road deaths in each type of vehicle.
These statistics are available as “Risk of injury measured by the percentage of drivers injured in a two-car injury accident.” These statistics show a ten to one ratio of in-vehicle accident deaths between the least safe and most safe car models.
The statistics show that occupants have a 6-8% chance of death in a two-car accident for popular, lightly built cars. (e.g. BMW 3 series 6%, Subaru Impreza 8%, Honda Accord 6%). Traditional “safety cars” such as the Volvos halve that chance (Volvo 700 4% incidence of death, Volvo 900 3%).
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The Toyota Land Cruiser SUV has a 6% incidence of occupant death in actual crashes. However, in multiple-vehicle crashes, SUVs are not much more lethal than passenger cars. Although, rollovers are much more common in older SUVs than passenger cars because of their top weight.
For this reason, SUVs actually pose a greater threat to roll over and cause a fatality rather than passenger cars. Newer SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 have a lower center of gravity and enhanced stability control programs, lowering the risk of rollover substantially. Overall the four best vehicles are the Jaguar XJ series 1%, Mercedes-Benz S-Class / SEC 1%, Land Rover Defender 1%, and Land Rover Discovery 1%.
Motorcyclist deaths within England and Wales stand at 53% of the annual road death statistics. Scooters/mopeds up to 50cc only account for 3% of those deaths. 2% of the scooter deaths were 16-19-year-olds who had not taken CBT (Compulsory Basic Training). (Statistics taken from 2004/2005 DSA annual road deaths percentages)
Cars have many basic safety problems – for example, they have human drivers who make mistakes, wheels that lose traction when the braking or turning forces are too high. In addition, some vehicles have a high center of gravity and, therefore, an increased tendency to roll over. When driven at high speeds, collisions can have serious or even fatal consequences.
Early safety research focused on increasing the reliability of brakes and reducing the flammability of fuel systems. For example, modern engine compartments are open at the bottom so that fuel vapors, which are heavier than air, vent to the open air. In addition, brakes are hydraulic and dual circuits so that failures are slow leaks rather than abrupt cable breaks.
Systematic research on crash safety started in 1958 at Ford Motor Company. Since then, most research has focused on absorbing external crash energy with crushable panels and reducing the motion of human bodies in the passenger compartment. This is reflected in most cars produced today.
Airbags, a modern component of automobile safety
Significant reductions in death and injury have come from the addition of Safety belts and laws in many countries to require vehicle occupants to wear them. Airbags and specialized child restraint systems have improved on that. Structural changes such as side-impact protection bars in the doors and side panels of the car mitigate the effect of impacts to the side of the vehicle. Many cars now include radar or sonar detectors mounted to the rear of the car to warn the driver if he or she is about to reverse into an obstacle or a pedestrian.
Some vehicle manufacturers produce cars with devices that also measure the proximity to obstacles and other vehicles in front of the car and are using these to apply the brakes when a collision is inevitable. There have also been limited efforts to use heads-up displays and thermal imaging technologies similar to those used in military aircraft to provide the driver with a better view of the road at night. In addition, there are standard tests for safety in new automobiles, like the EuroNCAP and the US NCAP tests. There are also tests run by organizations such as IIHS and backed by the insurance industry.
Despite technological advances, there is still significant loss of life from car accidents: About 40,000 people die every year in the United States, with similar figures in European nations. This figure increases annually in step with rising population and increasing travel if no measures are taken, but the rate per capita and per mile traveled decreases steadily.
The death toll is expected to nearly double worldwide by 2020. A much higher number of accidents result in injury or permanent disability. The highest accident figures are reported in China and India. The European Union has a rigid program to cut the death toll in half by 2010, and member states have started implementing measures.
Automated control has been seriously proposed and successfully prototyped. Shoulder-belted passengers could tolerate a 32 g emergency stop (reducing the safe inter-vehicle gap 64-fold) if high-speed roads incorporated a steel rail for emergency braking. Unfortunately, both safety modifications of the roadway are thought to be too expensive by most funding authorities.
Although these modifications could dramatically increase the number of vehicles able to use a high-speed highway safely, this makes clear the often-ignored fact road design and traffic control also play a part in car wrecks; unclear traffic signs, inadequate signal light placing, and poor planning (curved bridge approaches which become icy in winter, for example), also contribute.