In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) 2015 Crash Stats report, there is a special focus on “critical reasons” for pre-crash events. These critical reasons, while not cited as the direct cause of the accident per se, are major contributing factors to the chain of events leading up to a crash.
For the vast majority of accidents, the critical reason for the accident is attributed to decisions made by one or more drivers—94% (or 2,046,000) of accidents according to the Crash Stats Report. According to that same report, mechanical failure in a vehicle is only attributed as the critical reason for a crash in 2% (or 44,000) of accidents.
So, why focus on car accidents caused by mechanical failure if they’re such a minority as the critical reason for accidents? Well, because, that 2% figure is, as noted by the NHTSA, inaccurate; “the vehicle related critical reasons were mainly inferred through external visual inspection of the vehicle components… the related statistics may not, therefore, be representative of the role of the other internal vehicle related problems.”
In short, mechanical failures in vehicles may be a bigger problem than the available data suggests. With this in mind, here are the top 5 mechanical failures that cause car accidents:
Failure #1: Tires/Wheels
According to the Crash Stats report, “the tire problem accounted for about 35 percent (±11.4%) of the crashes” where vehicle failures were the cause of the crash. This makes tire failure the most common cause of a vehicle failure crash.
Two of the most common types of problems with tires are tire blowouts and worn tires.
- Tire Blowouts. Blowouts can happen for a number of reasons, such as a worn-out, under- or over-inflated tire suddenly bursting under pressure, tires being punctured by debris in the road, or even sudden, severe temperature changes. Tire blowouts drastically reduce your ability to control the vehicle all at once, causing crashes.
- Worn Tires. Over time, tires will start to wear thin, losing their tread. This can be a major problem on the road, as it compromises tire grip—particularly in inclement weather (snow, rain, etc.). Worn tires are more likely to slip, take more distance to brake, and aren’t as responsive because of their weak grip on the road. All of which contribute to accidents.
Replacing tires before they completely lose their tread and maintaining optimal tire pressure are musts for preventing these mechanical failures on the road. Also, regularly check your tire alignment, since bad alignments wear tires out faster.
According to the crash stats report, “brake related problems as critical reasons accounted for about 22 percent (±15.4%)” of crashes where vehicle failure was the cited cause of the crash.
Bad brakes are a major factor in rear-end collisions, where the inability to stop in time causes a vehicle to ram right into the vehicle in front.
Common contributing factors to brake-related crashes include:
- Faulty/Worn Brake Lines. Leaks in brake lines may allow brake fluid to drain away, compromising brake performance.
- ABS Malfunctions. An Antilock Brake System (ABS) is designed to automatically prevent the wheels from locking up when drivers hit the brakes hard—preventing slipping and loss of control. ABS malfunctions can compromise braking performance.
- Worn Brake Pads & Discs. The brake pads and discs in your car wear out a little bit more with each and every use. Over time, this wear makes it harder to stop your vehicle, resulting in longer stop distances and increased accident risks.
Preventing this issue takes regular maintenance and inspection of your vehicle’s brake systems. Have a thorough inspection done at least once every 30,000 miles—this is the typical minimum lifetime of brake pads.
Most mechanics will tell you if they see that your brake pads are wearing thin or if you have other brake-related issues when you take your car in for servicing.
3: Steering and Suspension
The third most-common critical reason for a car accident cited in the NHTSA report was a combination of “steering/suspension/transmission/engine-related problems.” This combination category accounted for just 3 percent of the crashes cited in the report.
Part of the reason why these issues are more rarely cited as the critical reason for an accident is that they’re harder to document and identify post-crash. Blown tires & worn brakes are easy to spot, but damage to the suspension caused by wear and tear is harder to sort out from the damage incurred in the crash.
Steering and suspension problems can cause a loss of control over your vehicle at inopportune moments. Transmission and engine problems could keep you from being able to accelerate quickly if the need arises—leaving you stranded in an intersection with oncoming traffic.
Routine vehicle maintenance is the best way to prevent steering and suspension issues that could contribute to a crash. If your vehicle’s due for a full inspection, it’s important to get that inspection done and get a report so you know if there are any issues with your steering, suspension, transmission, or engine.
It may pay to ask your mechanic if they’ll give you a free OBD-II system check. This is a check where the mechanic hooks up your vehicle’s onboard diagnostics system to a specialized computer to check for certain error codes.
These top three causes are the most commonly-cited ones for accidents on the road when it comes to vehicle failures. However, that still leaves nearly 40% of vehicle-failure accidents unaccounted for. In these cases, some other unknown vehicle failure is considered the critical reason for the accident, but the NHTSA report doesn’t break them down.
So, what are some of these other mechanical failures that can contribute to an accident? Here’s a list of possibilities:
In low visibility conditions, such as nighttime, foggy roads, or during storms, it becomes much harder to see other vehicles on the road.
Headlights and taillights increase visibility significantly, showing you not only more of the road, but making it so that other drivers are better able to see your vehicle too. Bust vehicle lights make your car much harder to see in the dark or in inclement weather, increasing your risk of getting rear-ended or sideswiped.
Vehicle lights are important even on a clear day. Turn signals (a.k.a. blinkers) let other drivers know when you’re preparing to change lanes or slow down for a turn. Without working blinkers, your lane changes are made unannounced.
This increases the risk that other drivers may not be able to tell where you’re going; which also increases your accident risk during a lane change or turn.
5: Windshield Wipers
Never underestimate the importance of windshield wipers, particularly here in Florida. When it’s raining hard, visibility is greatly reduced. Windshield wipers help clear rain and debris from the windshield, helping improve visibility so you can see where you’re going a bit better.
Worn out wiper blades are less effective at clearing rain and debris, leaving streaks that continue to block your sight. Worse yet, if the motors controlling the wipers malfunction or break, the sudden loss of vision could cause an accident right away if you’re in heavy traffic or traveling at high speed.
Check your windshield wipers once every month or so, or if you notice that they’re not clearing your windshield effectively during a light rainstorm. If the blades are damaged, replace them as soon as possible. Most major auto parts stores have a booklet that tells you which blades are the right ones for your make and model of car—if not, you may want to talk with your manufacturer.
Also, be sure to check your windshield wiper fluid and top it off when necessary—during your next oil change is a good time to check.
Remember, while mechanical failures are not cited as the critical reason for an accident in most cases, they can be a major contributing factor—especially since many mechanical failures might go undetected.
The best protection is to regularly check your vehicle’s maintenance and to use caution whenever you’re behind the wheel. However, despite your best efforts, accidents can still happen to the best drivers in the most well-maintained vehicles.
If you or a loved one is involved in an accident caused by another driver’s negligence or a mechanical failure, be sure to find an experienced auto accident attorney to help you as soon as possible.