Bad Luck in Driving Accidents

Accident CausesSome people are just unlucky and have accidents all the time. Or at least that is how they tell the story.  But there is a good reason to doubt such “bad luck” stories.

Working in medicine, I have met folks who have accidents over and over. Most of them tell a “woo-is-me” story and tell others “I am just really unlucky”. But were their many accidents just due to their bad luck, or is there something else involved besides “bad luck”?

My diagram to the right attempts to illustrate the role of your responsibility in your accidents. Sometimes diagrams simplify things, but I am not sure if they do here.  So, to get to the point: Most accidents are avoidable, even when they are NOT your fault.

Using the NHTSA’s 2008 National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NHTSA, 2008), I will add a lot of verbosity to elaborate the causes of your accidents :

Explaining the Top diagram:

At the risk of over simplifying, there are three possible causes of a traffic accident.
(1) You:
(2) Others
(3) The Environment or Vehicle:

Driver Causes (You and Others): pre-smartphone!

  • recognition error 40.6%:
    –Inadequate surveillance 20.3%
    –Internal distraction 10.7%
    –External distraction 3.8%
    –Inattention (i.e., daydreaming, etc.) 3.2%
    –Other/unknown recognition error 2.5%
  • performance error 10.3%
    –Overcompensation 4.9%
    –Poor directional control 4.7%
    –Other/unknown performance error 0.4%
    –Panic/freezing 0.3%
  • non-performance error 7.1%
    –Sleep, actually asleep3.2%
    –Heart attack or other physical impairment 2.4%
    –Other/unknown critical nonperformance 1.6%
  • decision error 6.2%
    –Too fast for conditions 8.4%
    –Too fast for curve 4.9%
    –False assumption of other’s action 4.5%
    –Illegal maneuver 3.8%
    –Misjudgment of gap or other’s speed 3.2%
    –Following too closely 1.5%
    –Aggressive driving behavior 1.5%
    –Other/unknown decision error

Vehicle Causes:

–Tires failed or degraded/wheels failed 43.3%
–Brakes failed/degraded 25.0%
–Other vehicle failure/deficiency 20.8%
–Steering/suspension/transmission/engine failed 10.5%
–Unknown 0.5%

Environmental Causes:

–Slick roads (ice, loose debris, etc.) 49.6%
–View obstructions 11.6%
–Signs/signals 2.7%
–Road design 1.4%
–Other highway-related condition 9.8%

Atmospheric condition
–Fog/rain/snow 4.4%
–Other weather-related condition 4.0%
–Glare 16.4%


So looking at the top diagram again, most accidents are due to people, not the situation (environment or vehicle), but there are also the complex interactions between these three causes that can create your accident:

(A) You and the Situation’s: You were driving in an area that you knew could flood soon.
(B) You and Others: You were tailgating and they were tailgating when the car in front of you stopped quickly.
(C) Others and the Situation: A cop chases a speeder who jumps lanes and hits you.
(D) You, Others and The Situation : Perfect storm — You are tailgating a tailgater when flood waters suddenly hit the street.

As for the Bottom Diagram:

This illustrates which of the above causes you could have potentially avoided and thus escape an accident: You, Other Drivers, Situation (environment or vehicle). When viewing this, remember that stats show that some ninety percent of motor vehicle crashes are caused at least in part by human error.

(1) You: Yes, if you are the cause, you can avoid all those accidents
(2) Others: Yes, since others sometimes run stop lights, though you may have the right of way, look carefully before going through a green light. No, sure, if someone is going to jump lanes, short of trying to stay in the right lane and being aware, sometimes you can’t avoid this.
(3) Situation (Environment or Vehicle): You can avoid many situations, some you can’t.

Conclusion: People who have many accidents are usually not defensive drivers. Sure, they may not have been directly at fault in their accidents, but they could have avoided them. They could have stopped the causal chain. Luck? Nope! Our minds protect us from blame — maybe this reflexive blame-blocking is useful in persuasion but a very counterproductive reflex in avoiding traffic accidents.



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