Head-on collisions aren’t as common as other types of vehicle accidents, such as rear-enders and t-bone collisions. Statistics from the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) show that 18% of fatal accidents that don’t occur at interchanges or junctions are head-on collisions. Although head-on collisions are relatively rare, they are disproportionately dangerous. In 2005, only 2% of crashes were head-on collisions, but these accidents accounted for 10% of fatal accidents.
Head-on accidents are more likely to be fatal than any other kind of accident, except for rollover accidents.
Head-on collisions are more likely to result in a death because colliding head-on is about the same as crashing into a wall: there’s nothing to absorb the impact.
Thus, the damage to both the human body and the vehicle is likely to be more serious than in, for example, a rear-ender accident where the front car is pushed forward.
Where Head-on Collisions Happen
75% of head-on crashes occur on rural roads and 75% occur on undivided two-lane roads. Head-on crashes are also more common in places such as construction zones, where the lane size is reduced and the usual dividers may not be present. Highway ramps are also a “popular” place for head-on collisions, as drivers may confuse on-ramps with off-ramps.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, most head-on crashes don’t relate to failed attempts to pass on a two-lane road. Only 4.2% of these head-on crashes involve “passing or overtaking another vehicle.”
In 68% of head-on crashes, the vehicles were going straight, and in 23% of cases, the cars were taking a curve.
Causes of Head-On Crashes
According to an analysis of the FARS data, most head-on crashes result from a motorist making an unintentional maneuver (e.g., swerving into the oncoming traffic). This can be caused by:
- Falling asleep at the wheel
- Being distracted by something or someone inside or outside of the car—such as a cell phone, the radio, or a passenger
- Drunk driving
- Driving too fast on a curve
- Slippery road conditions (rain and ice)
- Tire blow-outs and other mechanical problems
- Swerving to avoid debris or an animal or pedestrian in the road
- Over-compensating after drifting onto the shoulder
- Poor visibility (e.g., fog or rain) that obscures the center line
- Head-on crashes can also be caused by going the wrong way, as the following cases show.
Local Head-on Accidents
Several accidents in the Chandler area in May and June of 2014 illustrate how wrong-way head-on accidents can happen:
- A Mesa police sergeant was killed by a wrong-way driver as he came around a blind curve on a flyover ramp off Interstate 10 in the East Valley.
- A 68-year-old woman with a blood alcohol content of .18 % (twice the legal limit) was driving the wrong way on the loop 202 freeway in Gilbert with her nine-year-old grandson when she collided head-on with another vehicle. Two others were killed and the grandson was seriously injured.
- Three people from Indonesia were killed and three others seriously injured in a wrong-way head-on collision on Interstate 17 near Bumblebee Road.
- Two men were injured in a wrong-way head-on crash at 1:50 am on State Road 143.
Injuries in Head-on Accidents
In a head-on collision, the bodies of the driver and passengers continue to move forward as the vehicle comes to an abrupt stop. If there are no airbags and they are not wearing seatbelts, then they may slam into the dashboard, steering wheel, or windshield or be ejected through the windshield.
The impact can cause injuries including:
- Fractures or dislocations of the ankles, knees, or hips
- Fractures of the femur (thighbone)
- Fractures of the ribs, skull, or spine
Even without impact, the rapid deceleration can cause serious internal injuries. For example, the brain will “bounce” against the inside of the skull and shear forces can cause internal organs to tear. Injuries are likely to be less severe if the driver and passengers are wearing seatbelts and the car is equipped with airbags. A three-point lap-shoulder belt is thought to reduce the risk of death or serious injury for front-seat passengers about 45%. Airbags reduce the risk of fatalities in head-on collisions about 30%.