Radiologist examining a woman in wheelchair's x-ray of human spine during a visit at hospital

What Percentage of Spinal Cord Injuries Are Caused By Automobile Accidents?

Spinal Cord Injuries Caused By Automobile Accidents?

Automobile and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the United States, accounting for nearly 50 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year. Spinal cord injuries are catastrophic in nature, resulting in loss of movement, poor mental health outcomes, and increased risk for death.

Risk factors for spinal cord injuries include being male, being between the ages of 16 and 30 or over age 65, engaging in the use of alcohol while driving, and other risky driving behaviors such as failure to wear a safety belt and speeding. 

How Do Automobile Accidents Contribute to Spinal Cord Injuries?

Spinal cord injuries are the result of damage to any portion of the spinal cord or to the nerves at the base of the spinal column. They can also occur due to damage to the vertebrae (bones), ligaments, or spinal discs surrounding the spinal cord. Twisting, jerking, compressing, or crushing of the spine contribute to spinal cord injuries.

The types of sudden, traumatic blows common in car accidents can fracture, dislocate, crush, or compress vertebrae. During a motor vehicle accident, the force of impact can lead to spinal compression or extension, and being thrown side to side in a vehicle causes the spine to twist and bend in unnatural ways. Rollover accidents may result in crush injuries to the back.

Following a crash, spinal cord injuries may not be immediately apparent. Bleeding, swelling, and fluid build up in and around the spinal cord contribute to damage for days and weeks after the initial injury. It’s important to avoid moving accident victims until first responders arrive to stabilize the neck and back.

What Are the Risks of Spinal Cord Damage?

The spinal cord is responsible for sending and receiving signals between the brain and the body. A damaged or severed spinal cord can result in permanent changes to a person’s ability to walk and move their limbs and experience sensations like heat, cold, and pressure. 

Paralysis is the term that describes loss of control over movements due to a spinal cord injury. The parts of the body affected by paralysis depend on the location of injury on the spinal cord. For example, damage occurring to the chest or lower back near the lumbar spine can cause paralysis to everything below the injury, including the torso, legs, and pelvis, but not the arms. This is known as paraplegia.

Involvement of the cervical spine, near the neck, can result in quadriplegia, which is paralysis of the hands, arms, torso, legs, and pelvis. Quadriplegia can also affect a person’s ability to breathe. Spinal cord damage can cause:

  • Loss of movement
  • Loss of or changes to sensation
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control
  • Uncontrolled muscle spasms
  • Sexual dysfunction and loss of fertility
  • Pain or stinging caused by nerve damage
  • Difficulty breathing, coughing, or clearing lung secretions

In addition to the physical effects, spinal cord injuries also have mental, emotional, and social impacts on patients.

Which Drivers Are Most at Risk for Spinal Cord Injuries?

Gender, age, alcohol use, and risky behavior, such as failure to use a seat belt or excessive speed, can be predictive factors for who is most at risk for spinal cord injuries due to automobile accidents.


According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, men are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors than women, putting them at higher-than-average risk for injury-causing accidents. Lack of seat belt use, speeding, and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol are more prevalent among male drivers. As a result, crashes involving male drivers tend to be more severe in nature.


More than half of all spinal cord injuries occur in people between 16 and 30 years old, and younger drivers are more likely to be involved in motor vehicle accidents than older ones. The National Safety Council reports the following statistics related to motor vehicle accidents by age:

  • Drivers between 16 and 19 represent only 3.6 percent of all licensed drivers but are responsible for 9.3 percent of motor vehicle accidents. 
  • In 2021, 20- to 24-year-olds caused 3 million wrecks.
  • Drivers between 25 and 34 years of age accounted for more than 5 million accidents.

Despite research that indicates older drivers engage in fewer risky driving behaviors, avoid driving in bad weather and at night, drive fewer overall miles, wear their seat belts more often, and are less likely to drive while intoxicated, motor vehicle accidents were the second leading cause of spinal cord injuries in people over 60. Almost a quarter of spinal cord injuries in this age group were due to a motor vehicle accident. 

Passengers over 60 who were injured in a collision with another vehicle were the most vulnerable. Spinal cord injuries in this population are especially difficult because age adversely impacts a patient’s rehabilitation efforts, leads to longer hospital stays, greater disability, and increased mortality than in younger patients.

The increase in spinal cord injuries in motorists over 60 may be due to natural changes as they age in bone density and muscle strength that serve as protective factors in younger people.

Alcohol Use

Alcohol is involved in 25 percent of traumatic spinal cord injuries . Since alcohol reduces the brain function, thinking, reasoning, and muscle coordination needed to safely operate a vehicle, drivers with a blood-alcohol content over the legal limit of .08 greatly increase the risk they will be involved in an accident.

Seat Belt Use

Seat belts help prevent twisting, crushing, and pulling of the body by restraining it against the seat during an accident. The risk of major injuries are reduced by 53 percent when a car’s occupant is wearing a seat belt. Seat belts have also been shown to reduce spinal injuries by 56 percent.


Excessive speed is a major factor in the severity of injuries resulting from automobile accidents. When the speed of a vehicle increases just 20 mph, the energy released in an impact more than doubles. The more violent the impact, the more severe the injuries to drivers and passengers.

Accident victims who have suffered a spinal cord injury face a lifetime of medical and therapy expenses, as well as limited ability to work and loss of income. A personal injury attorney can help your family on the road to lessening the financial burden so you can focus on healing.


Mayo Clinic

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

National Safety Council

National Institutes of Health

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration- Drunk Driving

National Safety Council – Speeding

U.S. General Services Administration Office of Motor Vehicle Management

BMC Public Health

Cleveland Clinic – Lumbar Spine

American Association of Neurological Surgeons – Cervical Spine

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