Driving may be the most dangerous thing you do each day. In fact, the US sees a couple million car accident injuries every year.
Most are minor, many are serious, and tens of thousands prove fatal every year. In fact, collision injuries claim more young American lives than any other cause.
But what types of injuries are likeliest to occur? Which parts of our bodies are the most vulnerable? And what’s the effect of car design and driving habits?
First, we need to make one thing clear.
If you’ve suffered a car accident injury, then stop reading, and contact a personal injury attorney immediately! You have limited time to file a claim, and may be up against insurers and opposing attorneys who want to minimize your compensation.
With that said, let’s dive into some research.
These are the most common car accident injuries
Whiplash is one of the most frequent injuries because it can occur even at low speeds.
The NHSTA estimated over 272k whiplash injuries annually in the US. That means about 1% of the entire population (at the time of the study) experienced whiplash in one average year.
The medical name for whiplash is “cervical acceleration-deceleration injury,” and that’s a good description of how the injury happens. Our heads are heavy, especially compared to the limited strength of our neck muscles. When a collision impact thrusts us forward, our heads stay in place for another fraction of a second, during which time our necks hyperextend violently, then snap forward.
That rapid acceleration-deceleration strains cervical ligaments, hence the painful but often hard-to-diagnose condition we know as whiplash.
Concussion & traumatic brain injury
It’s obvious that hitting our heads against a steering wheel or window can cause a concussion, or even more severe forms of traumatic brain injury. This is all too common in car accidents.
But what’s less obvious is that we can also sustain a concussion (or worse) without hitting our head at all. All it takes is a vigorous change in momentum to compress our brains against the inside of our skulls. That’s why collision forces without direct impact may still result in some degree of brain injury.
Collisions often cause broken bones in one of two ways.
The first is when parts of the vehicle are crushed in a collision. This often snaps or crushes hand, foot, arm, or leg bones that are near the point of impact. Such extreme force can even break large bones like the femur (upper leg) or humerus (upper arm), which some research suggests are the two most common car-accident fractures.
The second is when the force of the collision jams our extremities against immobile surfaces, like the steering wheel or dashboard. The small bones of our hands and feet are particularly vulnerable, as are our delicate facial bones.
External or internal bruising & bleeding
Under the extreme force of a collision, bruises (contusions) are highly likely—and potentially severe.
Unlike everyday bruises that heal themselves, auto accidents can bruise our internal organs. Strong impacts or crushing forces may press organs against each other or against our ribs, perhaps even damaging blood vessels at the same time. If so, the resulting injuries are extremely urgent and often fatal.
Even in milder cases, the seat belt and airbag may cause severe chest bruising in their own right. Of course, that’s far less harmful than steering wheel/dashboard impact or ejection from the car. Still, safety devices can only mitigate harm, not prevent it entirely.
Fuel systems are safer than in years past, so only about 3% of auto accidents result in fire. But when a vehicle does combust, the heat is often intense and prolonged.
This can easily cause third- or fourth-degree burns, wherein skin and even deeper tissues are destroyed. Such burns are excruciatingly painful, grotesquely disfiguring, and sometimes fatal.
EVs present a different burn risk, and data are limited but alarming. Specifically, lithium-ion batteries carry a significant risk of combustion or explosion following accidents with electric vehicles—and sometimes even spontaneously. Besides the risk to occupants, battery fires also jeopardizes rescuers and may delay their help.
Spinal cord injuries
Car accidents often cause spinal cord/nervous damage due to shear forces or blunt-force trauma.
Our spinal cord is a complex bundle of nerves that coordinate our most basic functions. It’s also long, flexible, and designed to favor movement over protection. Unfortunately, that means impact or violent changes in momentum can push parts of our spine in different directions.
In mild and moderate cases, the force may damage ligaments and cause symptoms akin to whiplash. Sometimes, this causes localized inflammation which leads to non-permanent nervous symptoms.
In more severe cases, the force may stretch or sever the nerves themselves, resulting in some degree of paralysis.
Not only do sharp objects abound in vehicles, but collisions may turn smooth plastic or metal sheeting into knife-like edges.
Flying glass shards are another potential cause, although modern vehicle windows are designed to minimize the scattering of shattered glass.
Lacerations usually result from high impact, so they’re typically accompanied by other, potentially more severe injuries.
Limb crushing & amputation
Direct impact and its aftermath, like vehicles rolling on top of a victim, can sever limbs immediately or crush them to a degree that requires surgical amputation.
According to the Amputee Coalition, car accidents cause the vast majority of traumatic amputations, more than two-thirds of which are to the arm. (Leg amputation seems more prevalent in developing countries, where modes of travel—especially motorcycle use—and vehicle safety standards are drastically different.)
What about mental health issues?
The trauma of a car accident is as much psychological as it is physical. With or without injuries, the mere threat of serious harm or death is profoundly upsetting and may cause long-term psychological harm.
This is an emerging field of research, so data remain limited on the mental health impact of auto collisions. However, some recent research suggests that about one-third of those involved in accidents will experience some degree of PTSD, according to.
Additionally, life-changing injuries, painful treatment and healing, guilt over one’s role, and severe financial strain are all common causes of depression and anxiety.
What body parts are injured most often in car accidents?
No matter the type of injury (as covered above), some body parts are likelier to bear the brunt of an auto collision.
Not all injuries are reported, so data on the most frequently-injured body parts aren’t that reliable. However, there’s enough research to make some educated guesses.
Neck (soft tissue)
Neck injuries are exceedingly common in car accidents, especially when hit from behind at any speed.
Our necks are a fairly weak link between the mass of the head and torso. As such, the neck is susceptible to strain and jerking around during a drastic change in momentum, making it highly vulnerable to whiplash.
Head & chest
A French study found that the head (particularly face) and chest are the most common locations of severe injuries.
These regions of the body are most at risk in head-on collisions. Seat belts and airbags are immensely protective, but can’t totally prevent harm.
Our backs aren’t quite as delicate as our necks, but both are susceptible to similar harm.
The bones and tissue of the lower back are optimized for bending forward and backward, but only moderately to the side. Side-impact collisions may cause violent lateral movement and shear forces, resulting in painful soft tissue damage and even spinal cord injury.
Feet & lower legs
Front-impact collisions often crumple the driver’s and front passenger’s foot areas. Often, this compresses the lower extremities into impossibly tight spaces, which may strain or tear connective tissue and even snap or crush small bones.
Moderate leg injuries are common for all vehicle occupants, but women experience them more often than men, according to the IIHS.
This is apparently due to vehicle choice, not anatomical differences, since women are less likely to drive large trucks/SUVs and less likely to be the striking driver in a collision.
Hands & lower arms
Our upper extremities are arguably the least protected body parts during a collision. It’s no wonder that these areas are prone to damage.
Hand and arm injuries usually take the form of broken bones. Drivers may be at heightened risk (compared to passengers) due to the proximity of the steering wheel.
Such fractures are essentially never fatal, but may be accompanied by severe bleeding or other life-threatening emergencies.
How reliable are car accident injury data?
Simple data, like total injury counts, are highly reliable in the US. It’s mandatory to report any accident resulting in injury or death, so general trends are easy to measure.
More complex data, like breakdowns by injury type, are less accurate but still directionally correct. Delayed injuries after car accidents aren’t always recorded and available to authorities, so researchers have to extrapolate from limited observations.
Likewise, milder injuries are less likely to be reported at all. It’s hard to measure their prevalence in the first place, let alone over time.
Are accident injury patterns changing?
Improved safety standards have reduced the number and severity of injuries in similar collisions, but higher speeds and distraction levels may be offsetting those improvements. That helps explain 2020’s spike in traffic death rates despite fewer overall car trips.
However, safety improvements for occupants have accompanied a trend toward larger, heavier vehicles. Their height and mass increase risk to those outside the car: most notably pedestrians and cyclists, but also occupants of more conventionally-sized cars.
What should I do if I’m injured?
If you’ve suffered an injury, then contact our auto injury experts immediately, and do not attempt to negotiate with insurance companies on your own.
We have a long track record of fighting for and winning compensation that our clients deserve for their harm and trauma.
Contact us today to discuss your own case and legal options.