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Data Analysis: The Most Harmful Event in Fatal Crashes

Posted on March 11, 2023 in

U.S. Map image

Unfortunately, fatal collisions occur every day across the United States.  Most commonly, fatal crashes occur when two or more vehicles collide.  But outside of other vehicles, what are drivers most likely to hit in fatal crashes? Poles? Trees? Curbs? Or something else? We examined 20 years of fatal crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to find out.

A fatal crash can involve multiple factors or events, however. Therefore, this analysis focuses on the “most harmful event” for each crash. According to the NHTSA, the most harmful event is defined as “the event that resulted in the most severe injury or, if no injury, the greatest property damage involving this vehicle.”

Between 2000-2019, there were 692,276 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the United States – with over 60 percent involving moving vehicles, pedestrians, and rollover/overturns.

Which Are the Most Common Types of Fatal Car Crashes?

As previously mentioned, the three most harmful events involve a moving vehicle crashing into another (38 percent), followed by crashes with pedestrians (13 percent) and rollover/overturns (10 percent).

The likelihood of a fatal crash involving a rollover/overturn is nearly the same as that of trees/shrubs (10 percent and 9 percent, respectively).

What Are the Most Common Types of Fatal Crashes by County?

When we look at the map, we see that the most harmful event significantly varies by region. Fatal crashes involving trees or shrubs seem to aggregate in the southeastern and northeastern states, while those with rollover/overturns are clustered more in the western states.

Fatal Crashes With Pedestrians

After collisions with moving vehicles, the second most common fatal crash type involves pedestrians. Pedestrian collisions seem to aggregate in population centers across the U.S. along with large areas of Florida and southern California – states with generally warmer climates and higher populations of pedestrians on the road. They are also common in New Mexico, which has been found to be one of the deadliest states for pedestrians. In Alaska, pedestrians are overrepresented in roadway fatalities, despite making up a small portion of the U.S. total.

Fatal Crashes With Rollover/Overturns

10 percent of fatal crashes involved rollover/overturns. Rollover/overturns occur when a vehicle tips over to its side or roof and are among the most dangerous types of crashes. While any vehicle can roll over, those with a higher center of gravity – such as pickup trucks – are more susceptible to it.

Fatal crashes with rollover/overturns are overwhelmingly located in the western and southwestern regions – where there are significantly more pickup trucks. Wyoming, for example, has 2.4 more registered pickup trucks on the road than the average state.

Fatal Crashes With Trees/Shrubs

Nine percent of fatal crashes involve trees or shrubs. Drivers are most likely to be killed after colliding with a tree in more densely wooded areas in the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, East, and South-Eastern regions. In fact, if you were to overlay this map with U.S. tree density data, you would find that it has almost the exact same shape (save for mountainous regions with no roads).

Collisions with trees can be deadly for obvious reasons, they are large, solid, fixed objects. Fallen trees, however, are an underrated danger on the road that can result from hazardous weather. The strong winds of a winter storm, thunderstorm, or hurricane can cause trees to uproot – and faster in the rainy states. Wet soil isn’t able to hold the tree’s roots as solidly as dry soil, making it more likely for trees to topple over.

Fatal Crashes With Poles

Another deadly fixed object, fatal crashes caused by collisions with poles occurred more often in the western states, including Nevado, Colorado, and Wyoming. Contributing factors to pole-related fatal crashes may include speed, lack of visibility (driving at night), and sudden road curves.

Fatal Crashes With Ditches

Ditch-related fatal crashes occurred most often in the southeast, including North Carolina and South Carolina.

Fatal Crashes With Embankments

Fatal crashes with embankments were most common in the northwest and midwestern states such as Idaho, the eastern states, and Alaska.

Fatal Crashes With Mailboxes

Mailboxes are the most common fixed objects on roadways and the closest obstacle allowed next to the travel lanes. However, even though mailboxes are located everywhere in the country, mailbox-related fatal crashes were overwhelmingly clustered in the southeastern region.

Collisions with mailboxes are enough of an issue that both the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the USPS have guidelines that recommend how to fix them and where they must be placed.  Most importantly for safety, the FHWA recommendations cover the size of the post used, the depth that it is buried and the materials used.  Essentially, they should be designed to bend or fall away if a vehicle hits them.  However, looking at the map above that is not always the case.

Fatal Crashes With Parked Cars

While we know that most fatal crashes involve one moving vehicle colliding into another, fatal crashes with parked cars can also be common – especially in states with densely populated areas like southern California and the Northeast. Interestingly, collisions with parked cars were also significant in Alaska.

Fatal Crashes With Bicyclists

Fatal crashes involving bicyclists occur most in places with pedestrian-friendly and bicyclist-friendly weather, such as California, Florida, and Hawaii.  Bicyclists, however, are extremely vulnerable on U.S. roadways and street design is overwhelmingly motor vehicle-centric.  

Fatal Crashes With Live Animals

Fatal crashes involving collisions with live animals were most common in the midwest and northwest including North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, but also areas within Texas Kansas, and unsurprisingly: Alaska. Animal-car collisions more frequently take place in high-speed, low-volume rural roads with a higher wildlife population and hunting popularity. 

Wildlife-related vehicle crashes are also more likely to occur in the fall – when there is an increase in animal activity on roadways due to migration, mating, or hunting season and more driving in less daylight. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the most commonly reported wildlife-vehicle collisions involve deer.

Fatal Crashes With Snowbanks

Fatal crashes caused by collisions with snowbanks occurred most often in Alaska, the northeastern states, New York, Vermont, and Maine, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming. Winter storms move through these states, forming snowbanks that can eventually get high enough to limit visibility for drivers. High snowbanks are dangerous, as they block the driver’s view of oncoming traffic when they are merging onto a roadway or entering an intersection – significantly increasing the risk of a collision.

Fatal Crashes With Boulders

Fatal collisions with boulders were overwhelmingly clustered in the western states of Washington, Oregon, northern California, and Colorado, as well as Maine and New Hampshire.

Fatal Crashes With Bridges

Fatal crashes caused by collisions with bridges most often occurred in the midwest and southern states including Kansas and Oklahoma, but also in Montana. Ice on bridges can contribute to bridge-related fatal crashes – especially in areas that aren’t equipped to drive in the snow and are speeding.


Data Sources

This study is based on 20 years of fatal crash data (2000-2019) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and data analysis by 1point21 Interactive.

If you would like to report or republish our findings, please link to this page to provide a citation for our work.