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  • Writer's pictureBrad Keating

The Dangers of Speeding: At What Speed does a Car Crash Become Fatal?

Updated: Jan 17

A car crash happens every 60 seconds in the United States. Although less than one percent are fatal accidents, car collisions still account for almost 40,000 US deaths each year. If not for posted speed limits in most of the built-up parts of the country, that figure would be much worse.

Higher speeds significantly increase the fatality risk in a car accident, be it a multi-car crash or a collision with a pedestrian. Many people feel the need to stick to the highest driving speeds they can, either for the thrill or to get there faster. Something that all citizens can agree on is; it is better to get there late than never arrive at all.

The dangers of exceeding the speed limit or pushing the upper boundary are simply not worth it. Knowing at what speed a fatal car accident becomes an inevitability may make drivers think twice before increasing the gas.

Risks of Exceeding Maximum Speed Limits

Risks of Exceeding Maximum Speed Limits

Before looking at the figures, it is worth noting some of the biggest risks that come with higher speed limits. The obvious injury risk is made ever more likely in a fast car because of the following elements.

Less Control

Even the best drivers in the world struggle to control a car that spins out of control at a high speed. If something goes wrong when driving at 40 miles per hour, there is a lot more chance of managing to get the vehicle under control and avoiding a collision than there is if you are driving at 80.

It is more difficult to avoid other vehicles if a car begins skidding when driving fast, and it is far more frightening and hard to keep a level head. In short, the higher the speed, the worse the control, and the more chance there are crashing, either into somebody else, a concrete wall, or any other obstacle.

Shorter Reaction Period

Another risk factor is the minimal time drivers have to react to a situation if they are traveling at a high speed. So many tragic accidents would never have happened had a driver had more time to respond rather than a split second because they were driving so fast.

People believe that because they are competent drivers, they are not going to get into a car accident. What they forget is that they are not the only thing on the road. A child or animal can run out in front of a car unexpectedly, or another vehicle can suddenly do something reckless: anything can happen. High speeds mean there is no time to think, which is why fatality and severe injury happen so often.

Steering Wheel Airbag

Some of the most common injuries treated after a car accident are not from the impact of another vehicle but the force of the steering wheel airbag. Airbags exist for injury prevention purposes, protecting the people in the front seats from the dashboard.

If a car is moving at a low speed, the airbag should not do too much damage, although it is not uncommon to experience some bruising and swelling. However, when a car travels at a high speed, the airbag becomes a serious risk, often causing broken noses, neck fractures, and severe whiplash.

It is also common for accidents at higher speeds to cause the face to crash straight through the airbag and into the steering apparatus. If you are driving a leased car and this happens, you are able to get a settlement from the industry that leased you the car.

Children sitting in the front seat during a collision are at serious risk from an airbag deployment, which is why they should never be there. In some cases, children have been killed because of the force of the front seat airbag.

Failing Seatbelt

Seat belts are there to provide an extra level of safety, and they do an excellent job. People who are involved in crashes at a low or medium speed when wearing their seat belt often walk away with very minor injuries, if any, and just a need for a rental car. A seat belt can save a life, and they have proven this many times.

That said, in high-speed collisions where cars are being driven recklessly, often exceeding the posted speed limit, seat belts may not be strong enough. Modern cars thoroughly test their resistance, but in a head-on collision at 80 miles per hour, nothing short of a miracle could change that fate.

Fatal Speeds and the Pedestrian

Accidents involving a pedestrian have a higher likelihood to end in a fatality or serious injury. 17% of motor vehicle deaths are pedestrians, with 2.5% of crashes (more than double the rate of multi-vehicle accidents) ending fatally.

Posted speed limits in built-up zones where pedestrians and drivers are in close contact are always low to reduce the risk to human life. Here is a breakdown of how driving speeds affect the risk of death to a pedestrian.

Safe Zone: Under 20 MPH

There is a very low risk to somebody who is hit by a car driving less than 20 MPH. Highway safety codes set the posted speed limits in areas with schools around this level to limit the chance of something happening. Luckily, there is less than a five percent chance of being fatally injured if hit by a car traveling at this speed.

Risk Zone: 20-35 MPH

Between 20 and 35 MPH is an unlikely speed to cause death, but it can leave someone with injuries. Even at this speed, a pedestrian has a risk of serious injury or at least an extended stay in the ER.

Serious Injury and Possible Fatality Zone: 35-55 MPH

It is alarming how significantly the risk of death and injury increases with such a minor jump in speed. A person hit by a car traveling at 35 MPH has a 45% chance of death.

The chance slowly increased as the speed creeps higher, with the chance of multiple broken bones, brain injuries, and internal bleeding becoming all too real.

Death Zone: Over 55 MPH

If a car accident occurs between a vehicle and a pedestrian at more than 55 MPH, there is very little chance of survival. Hitting somebody at this speed is almost guaranteed to end in a fatal crash and possibly a wrongful death suit.

Fatal Speeds and Multi-Car Collision

When two cars collide, the risk of serious injury or death is linked directly to the speed at which each vehicle was traveling. The risk increases dramatically with the slightest jump in speed. Even five miles makes a big difference.

Safe Zone: Under 40 MPH

These days, most cars are designed to withstand a collision and protect the person inside up to a reasonable and safe speed. As long as both vehicles are moving at less and 40 MPH, the chances are everyone is going to be fine.

They may suffer minor injuries and a touch of whiplash, not to mention a trip to the mechanics, but they should walk away with their lives intact.

Risk Zone: Under 50 MPH

The risk of serious injury increases from around one percent when driving under 40 MPH to 52% at 50 MPH. The chances of a fatal car accident at this speed are not yet alarming, but it is enough to think twice about opting to drive at an increased speed if not absolutely necessary.

Serious Injury and Possible Fatality Zone: 50 - 70 MPH

Anything over 50 MPH carries a significant risk of permanent damage to the human body. If cars collide at the same speed going in the opposite direction, the entire driver's seat area can be crushed, along with the lower leg bones, or worse.

The closer to 70 MPH that an accident happens, the more severely injured becomes the lucky option. Thus, the chance of death at this speed increases to around 70%.

Death Zone: Over 70 MPH

70 MPH is the average speed limit on most US highways. It is also the speed at which a fatal car accident becomes practically inevitable. Such a crash carries as low as a 25% percent chance of survival. At 80, that number becomes drastically lower.

Possible Legal Repercussions for a Speeding Driver

Possible Legal Repercussions for a Speeding Driver

A person involved in a motor vehicle crash when they were speeding can face serious repercussions, especially if it results in a fatality. Speeding is breaking the law, and if somebody dies because of it, the driver can face charges including wrongful death, dangerous driving, and even manslaughter.

If somebody is found to have caused a fatal crash because they were speeding, there is a high chance they can face jail time and hefty fines. Any person involved in a fatal vehicle crash should seek an auto accident lawyer as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts

As speed increases, safety reduces. No driver should take speeding lightly or underestimate the consequences it could have on themselves and others.

A crash can be fatal for pedestrians at as little as 35 miles per hour- even less for children or the elderly, so never ignore highway safety laws.

Car crashes can result in death at any speed, but driving carefully can significantly reduce the risk. Do not take anybody's life into your own hands for the sake of a thrill- drive safely, and stick to the law.

1 Comment

William Scott
William Scott
Oct 14, 2023

Your statement that "It is also the speed at which a fatal car accident becomes practically inevitable. Such a crash carries as low as a 25% percent chance of survival. At 80, that number becomes drastically lower."

Quantify and source that a fatality accident is inevitable over 70 and "Such a crash carries as low as a 25% percent chance of survival.". Those are made up opinions until a source of that claim is listed. Besides "As low as" means that there is a range and it is disingenuous to make/present the claim as you have.

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