Motor vehicle accident historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Vishnu Vardhan Serla M.B.B.S. [2]

Historical Perspective

The world’s first road traffic death involving a motor vehicle is alleged to have occurred on 31 August 1896.[1][2] Irish scientist Mary Ward died when she fell out of her cousins' steam car and was run over by it.

The British road engineer J. J. Leeming, compared the statistics for fatality rates in Great Britain, for transport-related incidents both before and after the introduction of the motor vehicle, for journeys, including those once by water that now are undertaken by motor vehicle:[3] For the period 1863–1870 there were: 470 fatalities per million of population (76 on railways, 143 on roads, 251 on water); for the period 1891–1900 the corresponding figures were: 348 (63, 107, 178); for the period 1931–1938: 403 (22, 311, 70) and for the year 1963: 325 (10, 278, 37).[3] Leeming concluded that the data showed that "travel accidents may even have been more frequent a century ago than they are now, at least for men".[3]

In 1969 a British road engineer compared the circumstances around road deaths as reported in various American states before the widespread introduction of 55 mph (88.51392 km/h) speed limits and drunk-driving laws.[3]

'They took into account thirty factors which it was thought might affect the death rate. Among these were included the annual consumption of wine, of spirits and of malt beverages — taken individually — the amount spent on road maintenance, the minimum temperature, certain of the legal measures such as the amount spent on police, the number of police per 100,000 inhabitants, the follow-up program on dangerous drivers, the quality of driver testing, and so on. The thirty factors were finally reduced to six by eliminating those which were found to have small or negligible effect. The final six were:

  • (a) The percentage of the total state highway mileage that is rural
  • (b) The percent increase in motor vehicle registration
  • (c) The extent of motor vehicle inspection
  • (d) The percentage of state-administered highway that is surfaced
  • (e) The average yearly minimum temperature
  • (f) The income per capita

'These are placed in descending order of importance. These six accounted for 70% of the variations in the rate.'


Many different terms are commonly used to describe vehicle collisions. The World Health Organization use the term road traffic injury,[4] while the U.S. Census Bureau uses the term motor vehicle accidents (MVA)[5] and Transport Canada uses the term "motor vehicle traffic collision" (MVTC).[6] Other terms that are commonly used include auto accident, car accident, car crash, car smash, car wreck, motor vehicle collision (MVC), personal injury collision (PIC), road accident, road traffic accident (RTA), road traffic collision (RTC), road traffic incident (RTI), road traffic accident and later road traffic collision, as well as more unofficial terms including smash-up and fender bender.

Some organizations have begun to avoid the term "accident". Although auto collisions are rare in terms of the number of vehicles on the road and the distance they travel, addressing the contributing factors can reduce their likelihood. For example, proper signage can decrease driver error and thereby reduce crash frequency by a third or more.[7] That is why these organizations prefer the term "collision" rather than "accident".

However, treating collisions as anything other than "accidents" has been criticized for holding back safety improvements, because a culture of blame may discourage the involved parties from fully disclosing the facts, and thus frustrate attempts to address the real root causes.[8]

In Popular Culture


  1. However, the first known account of this crash dates to 1801. "Le fardier de Cugnot".
  2. "WHO | Road safety: a public health issue".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Leeming, J.J. (1969). Road Accidents: Prevent or Punish?. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-93213-2.
  4. "WHO | World report on road traffic injury prevention".
  5. "The 2009 Statistical Abstract: Motor Vehicle Accidents and Fatalities".
  6. "Statistics and Data - Road and Motor Vehicle Safety - Road Transportation - Transport Canada".
  7. Desktop Reference for Crash Reduction Factors Report No. FHWA-SA-07-015, Federal Highway Administration September, 2007
  8. Charles, Geoffrey (11 March 1969). "Cars And Drivers Accident prevention instead of blame". The Times. Unknown parameter |note= ignored (help)

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