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It’s one of those things that you see all the time: a car broken down on the side of the road. Maybe someone is working on the engine or changing a tire, or maybe the vehicle is alone. Did you know that these disabled vehicles pose a pretty serious risk? Disabled car deaths are on the rise, and organizations, including the IIHS, are studying why. 

A BMW is crash-tested. Hundreds of people are killed in disabled car accidents every year.
A BMW being crash tested | IIHS

A study looked at the dangers that disabled cars pose

The Impact Research firm performed the study at the request of Emergency Safety Solutions, a company which makes enhanced hazard lighting systems. Emergency Safety Solutions hopes to make safety gear even more usable and effective.

David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said, “This study identifies a part of the road safety equation that doesn’t get much attention, despite the size of the problem.”

The study found that accidents involving disabled cars cost the U.S. over $8 billion each year in medical payments, lost work wages, and death and disability. 

Disabled car accidents kill hundreds of people a year

People don’t always notice that a car is disabled, or that it’s there at all – until it’s too late. Most car accidents involving disabled cars – 95% – occur because a motorist crashed into a car they didn’t notice was disabled. 

The Impact Research firm’s study found that hundreds of people are killed each year due to disabled cars. 566 people to be exact. Additionally, approximately 14,371 people are injured each year. This number was taken from studies including the years 2016-2018. Accidents involving disabled vehicles and a lack of visibility was included. 

Although most accidents occur when a moving car hits a stationary one, that isn’t the type of incident responsible for the most deaths. More than half of deaths related to disabled vehicles actually involve pedestrians. Motorists often kill people exiting or working on broken down cars because motorists didn’t see them in time – or sometimes at all. These types of accidents kill 300 people each year. Twenty percent of serious injuries involving disabled vehicles are to pedestrians working on and getting out of these cars. 

To make matters worse, that number is on the rise. The number of pedestrians killed in disabled car accidents has risen by 25% since 2014. And it’s part of a bigger problem. Disabled car accidents killed 6,205 pedestrians in 2019, compared to 4,109 in 2009.

There are ways to reduce disabled car deaths

Disabled car-related deaths can be reduced. For one thing, paying attention and preventing distracted driving is an important way to cut down on accidents. 

Sometimes cars just aren’t visible. Advanced safety systems can warn drivers about disabled cars or people and objects in the roadway. Some advanced safety systems will even gently steer away from obstacles, usually after issuing a warning. Driver assistance apps like Waze can alert a driver to an upcoming disabled vehicle.

These types of notifications are far from perfect, though. That’s why having good headlights is an important but often overlooked feature in a car. In fact, poor headlights can be the difference between a vehicle receiving a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS and getting nothing at all. 

Better, more visible hazard lights can cut down on these types of accidents. Enhancing laws that require vehicles to move over when they see a disabled or stopped car on the side of the road could help, especially in the number of first responders killed. 

Above all, drivers need to pay attention while driving. It’s very easy to become so used to the routine of driving that we forget how quickly something seemingly benign can present a danger. By remaining alert, following traffic laws, and taking advantage of safety features, hopefully we can save lives. 


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