Top Leading Causes of Traffic Fatalities in California

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently published a study showing that California was the state with the largest number of motor vehicle deaths in the country, citing 3,606 fatalities in 2019, the most recent year to have statistics released.

Interstate 5, which runs through Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego, was also recently ranked as the third most dangerous highway in the United States. In 2019 alone, 186 fatal accidents occurred on the highway.

While defensive driving and an abundance of caution can help drivers to protect themselves, there are still plenty of dangers out on California roads.

With this in mind, today, we’ll answer the question, “What is the leading cause of traffic fatalities in California?” We’ll also offer some insight into the best ways to avoid becoming a casualty while you’re out on the roads in the state.

Top 5 Causes of Traffic Fatalities in California

What is the leading cause of traffic fatalities in California? Unfortunately, there are several factors that contribute to accidents in the state. Here are five of the worst:

  1. Alcohol Impairment
  2. Drug Impairment
  3. Seat Belt Usage
  4. Motorcyclists
  5. Distracted Driving

Alcohol Impairment

In 2019, 950 California drivers killed were vehicle accidents in which the driver had a known BAC that was above the legal limit of 0.08%. 406 individuals were estimated to have been killed due to being alcohol-impaired themselves.

Fortunately, public awareness and increased access to public transportation have made some headway in the effort to curb drunk driving. In 2019, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that deaths related to drunk driving were the lowest that they had been since 1982.

Still, alcohol use presents one of the biggest dangers to drivers out on the roads in the state.

Drug Impairment

Traditionally, DUIs have been associated with alcohol. However, California’s drunk driving laws also apply to those who are under the influence of drugs.

Of all of the California drivers who were killed in a motor vehicle crash and were tested for drugs in 2019, 50% tested positive. This represents an increase of 8% from the previous year.

According to the California DMV handbook, an officer may legally require a driver who is suspected of being under the influence of drugs to take a blood or urine test.

Drinking any amount of alcohol or smoking a cannabis product while driving or riding a motor vehicle is illegal. Open containers of alcohol may not be kept in the vehicle, either. 

Any drug that impairs an ability to drive safely is also considered to be illegal in the state. From recreational drugs like marijuana to prescription medicines that are abused, driving while impaired was a major factor in traffic fatalities in the state in 2019.

Seat Belt Usage

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the use of a seat belt can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45%.

In California, 96% of drivers report that they use seat belts. However, a whopping 624 vehicle occupants were fatally injured while unrestrained in 2019. 

California’s seat belt campaign, Click It or Ticket, first debuted in 2005. The campaign is believed to have increased seat belt use from 92.5% in 2005 to 95.9% in 2018.

California Vehicle Code 27315 requires all occupants in a moving vehicle who are older than age 8 to wear a safety belt. Children under the age of 8 must be restrained in a car seat in the back seat. Children under the age of 2 are required to use a rear-facing car seat. 

Operating a vehicle without wearing a seat belt results can lead to a $20 fine for the first offense. Charges increase to $50 for each subsequent offense. Charges can be issued for each individual in a vehicle.

Ignoring a ticket and failing to appear in court can even be charged as a misdemeanor offense under California Vehicle Code 40508


In 2019, 474 motorcyclists were involved in fatal motorcycle crashes in California. 

To become a motorcylist in the state of California, drivers must pass a vision exam, a skills test, and a knowledge test. Applicants under the age of 21 must also provide proof that they have successfully completed the California Motorcyclist Safety Program

Motorcyclists who are under the age of 21 must obtain a learner’s permit before they pursue a full license. Once a permit is obtained, the motorcyclist must hold the permit for at least 6 months before applying for a license. Permits are valid for 12 months after issuance.

The following behaviors are prohibited for permit holders:

  • Allowing passengers to ride on the motorcycle
  • Riding on the highway
  • Riding during evening hours

California Vehicle Code 27803 requires all motorcyclists and riders on a motorcycle to wear a helmet at all times. Fortunately, as more riders wear helmets, the risks of fatality decrease. In fact, the deaths attributed to failure to wear a helmet decreased by 18% from 2018 to 2019.

In 2017, California Vehicle Code 21658.1 was placed into effect, allowing motorcyclists to legally engage in lane splitting. 

In passing specific legislation to allow lane splitting, data from UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTREC) found that riders were 1.8% less likely to suffer a fatal injury.

Distracted Driving

In 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 3,142 of fatalities were due to distracted driving in California. This number represented 8.7% of all fatalities in total and a 9.9% increase from the previous year.

Distracted driving is defined as any activity that takes a driver’s attention away from operating their vehicle. This could include actions like sending a text message, talking on a cell phone, using a navigation system, or eating.

The California Office of Traffic Safety started a campaign in 2015 to minimize distracted driving called “Silence the Distraction.”

Navigating the Dangers of California Roads

While you can’t control the other drivers out of the roads, you can stay alert and minimize distractions within your own vehicle. By driving defensively and staying aware of the risks, you can reduce your chances of being involved in an accident out on the roads in California.

If you have been injured in a car accident caused by another party, reach out to a knowledgeable attorney to fight for the compensation you may be entitled to.

Since 1992, our personal injury attorneys at the Pines Salomon Injury Lawyers, APC. have been fighting for the people. Now, when those injured in automobile accidents need financial help, or for the families that need to know that the loss of a loved one could have been prevented, there is a personal injury law firm in San Diego that is on their side.

If you or a family member has been injured, call the lawyers at Pines Salomon Injury Lawyers, APC. There’s never been a better time than right now to speak to a personal injury attorney—FREE of charge. Call us at 858-551-2090 or request a free consultation online today!