Road Traffic Accident

A look at the volume of personal injury and death caused by road traffic accidents.

Injury and death rates due to road traffic accidents

Figures1 for casualties caused by motor vehicle traffic crashes in the USA alone:

Year Fatalities Injuries
(all severities)
1996 41,907 3,511,000
1997 41,967 3,399,000
1998 41,471 3,192,000
1999 41,611 3,236,000
2000 41,821 3,189,000
2001 42,116 3,033,000
2002 42,815 2,926,000
2003 42,643 2,889,000

The 2003 figure2 for serious injury due to road accidents in Great Britain was 33,707 and the number of deaths was 3,508 in the same period. That averages to over a hundred people killed or seriously injured on the road every day in 2003.

The 2003 figure3 for serious injury due to road accidents in Northern Ireland was 1,288 and the number of deaths was 150 in the same period. That averages to almost four people killed or seriously injured every day in 2003.

In the USA in 2003, motor vehicle traffic crashes were credited4 as the leading cause of death for children of age 3 and for all ages 5 through 33.

A World Health Organisation report5 estimates that road traffic accidents caused 1,180,000 deaths across the globe in 2002. The report notes that families can be pushed into poverty by the loss of earnings of a family member killed or injured in a road accident. On top of the loss of earnings, poor families struggle to find money to pay for ongoing medical care in the case of serious injury or disability, or for funeral costs in cases where a family member is killed on the road.

Causes of road traffic accidents

In Great Britain, data collected6 about road traffic accidents in 1999 to 2002 examined the factors involved in each accident. Excessive speed was the most common contributory factor in fatal accidents, playing a part in 28% of all fatal accidents examined in the trial. Careless, thoughtless or reckless behaviour was next, being a contributory factor in 21% of all fatal accidents examined.

In accidents resulting in any severity of casualty, inattention was the most common contributory factor, found in 25% of all accidents examined in the trial. Failing to judge another person's path or speed was the next most common contributory factor, playing a part in 23% of all accidents examined.

In the USA1, the factor attributed to the greatest number of fatal crashes in 2003 was "failure to keep in proper lane or running off road", being reported in over 32% of fatal accidents. "Driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed limit or racing" was next, reported as being a factor in over 20% of fatal accidents. Next was "under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication", being a factor in over 10% of fatal accidents that year.

Costs of road traffic accidents

The World Health Organisation estimates5 the global cost of road traffic accidents to be $518 billion per year. Low-income and middle-income countries lose more money to road accident and injury than they receive in development assistance. High-income countries are estimated to see 2% of their GDP lost to the cost of road accidents.

It is estimated1 that the economic cost of reported and unreported traffic crashes in the USA in the year 2000 was $230 billion.

In Great Britain, the average value of prevention per fatal accident in 2003 is reported2 as being £1,492,910. For accidents that resulted in serious injury, the average value of prevention per accident is £174,520. Of the £18 billion estimated total cost-benefit value of prevention of road traffic accidents in 2003, £13 billion is attributed to accidents that involved personal injury. The remaining £5 billion is attributed to accidents that led to property or vehicle damage only.


Road traffic accidents end hundreds of thousands of lives across the world every year. Very often death and injury is the result of drivers who did not take the road seriously enough.

The cost to the economy is huge, and the financial effect of personal injury can ruin families. Something that can't be measured is the emotional cost to family members and friends when a person is killed or injured.

In Greater London in the UK, it's very easy to count several examples of traffic laws being broken in a thirty minute period, and the culprits are almost always young male drivers. Too many drivers treat speed limits as nothing more than a suggestion; cross traffic lights that are red; corner at speed without using indicators beforehand; drive over pedestrian crossings while pedestrians are still on the road; and ignore clear signs that forbid, for example, right turns. Cyclists are also commonly seen jumping red lights, or making illegal turns. All of which makes it harder for pedestrians and other road users to use the roads without incident.

Police enforcement on the road in Greater London seems to be very weak. Minor violations such as illegal registration plates7 are seemingly ignored completely. As are missing headlights or brake lights. Some drivers do not have insurance because they can't or don't want to pay for it. Some don't even have a driving licence. It seems logical that a driver without insurance or without a licence is more likely to hit-and-run, leaving a seriously injured victim to die.

Drivers who are caught by the police often protest that the police should be out catching "real criminals". And this attitude seems to be prevalent. Dangerous driving appears to be treated by society with tolerance, even indifference. But the speed limits and traffic laws are in place because dangerous driving frequently costs people dearly. These rules should be taken very seriously.


1 - Figures from Traffic Safety Facts publications. [Might still be available online from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.]

2 - Road Casualties Great Britain: 2003 Annual Report. [This report is seemingly no longer available online.]

3 - Road Traffic Collision Statistics Annual Report 2003, available from the Police Service of Northern Ireland — Road Traffic Statistics Archive.

4 - Traffic Safety Facts Research Note (March 2006) — Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes as a Leading Cause of Death in the United States, 2003 by Rajesh Subramanian. [Might still be available online from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.]

5 - World report on road traffic injury prevention: summary, available from the World Health Organization.

6 - From section "Analyses of contributory factor data" in Road Casualties Great Britain: 2003 Annual Report. This data was collected as part of a voluntary trial involving fifteen police forces in Great Britain between 1999 and 2002, and therefore the results are not National Statistics.

7 - Display of Registration Marks for Motor Vehicles.