Human error: the biggest cause of crashes

car_toy“All of a sudden a car came from nowhere!” – Sound familiar? Car crashes happen every day in every country in the world, and we often insist on blaming external factors. However, the reality is that it’s often us at fault. In fact, it’s estimated that 95 per cent of crashes are actually due to human error. The other 5 per cent can be split between mechanical failure (which doesn’t include a worn tyre or faulty brakes, as that still counts as human error!) and something that could not have been prevented or predicted, such as a tree falling across the road. In this blog we are going to explore the reasons why human error is such a major cause of road crashes, and how adapting our behaviour can prevent them from happening…

Driver Skill

The first area to consider is the skill the driver has in controlling the vehicle. While most drivers have reasonable driving skills, and are able to make the vehicle go where they want it to without colliding with anything else, this is generally only the case when they have enough time and they are concentrating on the task. Whether or not a driver has had professional driver training/lessons, or was taught by family or friends, once the psychomotor skills associated with driving such as pressing the brake, finding the biting point of the clutch and using the steering wheel are mastered, driving a vehicle becomes relatively easy. Loss of control will always feature in a crash but it is rarely the root cause. Skills

Reacting to rules

The second area to consider is how drivers interpret and adhere to rules, such as the Road Traffic Act and the Highway Code. Irrespective of how well read they are, most drivers are aware of and understand the majority of the rules and procedures but they don’t always follow them. After all when learning to drive many of us are taught how to follow the rules to pass the test, the question is, what weren’t you taught during your lessons? Were you taught about being considerate to others and how to avoid feeling road rage? Did your instructor teach you all about time management or dealing with and managing fatigue? By learning to effectively manage factors like these, we can become safer, better road users.

Context is everything

At the end of 2012 the DVLA reported 34.5 million vehicles licensed for use on the roads of Great Britain of which 28.7 million (83 percent) were cars. This leads us on to the third area to consider: the reason and context of the journey. When you’re stuck in traffic or waiting for that green light, do you ever wonder why the driver in the next car is on that piece of road at that moment in time and what pressures they may be affected by? It could be a familiar journey for them and they may have become complacent, losing focus on the driving task. It could be an unfamiliar journey in an unknown town and they may even feel anxious, trying hard to fit in with and assess the traffic flow, gathering and processing high volumes of information and making quick decisions. The driver may also feel under pressure to drive in a particular way, such as the obligation they may feel to arrive on time, perhaps to catch a plane or maybe a job interview or even the peer pressure of a passenger in a similar situation. Whatever situation we find ourselves in on the road, we use a lot more than the basic car control skills we developed when we were learning to drive. After all, stopping a car should be easy; we’ve been able to stop the car since day one of our driving lessons. So why do so many of us nip through on amber and why do so many drivers end up using the rear bumper of the vehicle in front to stop? Is it due to their poor car control skills or something far more dangerous?

What really matters?

This leads us on to the fourth, final and probably most important area to consider: attitude, beliefs and the way we choose to live our lives. Everyone has a set of values and motivations that guide us through life. These same things also influence and drive certain behaviours when we’re behind the wheel. If you’re a methodical, laid back and relaxed person, you’re likely to drive differently to an impulsive, bungee-jumping adrenaline junky. We all have personality traits that are conducive to safe driving and those which perhaps are not. It is up to us to be honest, to recognise which is which and crucially, do something about it. positive attitude

To conclude, our personality and the way we choose to live our lives will usually always inform the context of the journey, influence whether we choose to follow the rules and procedures and maintain the best vehicle control we are capable of. The true root cause of almost all crashes is the behavioural choices we as drivers make every time we drive.

This article was written by Colin Knight –  MORR™ Consultant/Auditor – RoSPA Fleet Safety

Colin has 13 years experience within the Driver Training industry; he is a grade 6 Fleet Driver Trainer and holds a BA Honours Degree in Driver Education. He is a consultant and auditor for RoSPA Fleet Safety, focussing on developing the (MORR™) Management of Occupational Road Risk side of RoSPA’s operations with cross-functional responsibility for conducting trainer audits. Colin is a BSI certified Lead Auditor for ISO 39001 Road Traffic Safety (RTS) Management Systems and has project managed case studies demonstrating a quantifiable return on investment for clients both financially and culturally within the driver and fleet safety context.


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2 thoughts on “Human error: the biggest cause of crashes

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  1. It is simply not true to say that “it’s estimated that 95 per cent of [road traffic accidents] are actually [caused by] to human error”. Anyone puzzled by this should refer to any basic text book on the matter – it seems that RoSPA is no longer a reliable source..

    1. Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on our blog.

      We value your opinion greatly and would like this opportunity to clarify that the research showing that most road crashes involve human error dates back to 1980 – a TRRL study by Barbara Sabey & Brian Taylor. Other studies have also reached similar conclusions over the years, and the contributory factors to road crashes that are published every year also show that human error is involved in most road crashes.

      Kind Regards,


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