Very little is known about drowning deaths that occur as the result of motor vehicle traffic accidents. The two research questions addressed in this paper are how frequently do drowning deaths as a result of motor vehicle traffic accidents occur and what are the circumstances surrounding these deaths. The choice of the word “accident” instead of “crash” in this paper is intentional to avoid confusion related to the various source documents that define traffic and transport accidents.
The primary data source for this analysis is the linked Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) – Multiple Cause of Death (MCoD) file that is produced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The years used for the analysis start with 2004 and end with 2007.
From 2004 through 2007, there was an annual average of 384 traffic fatalities in FARS where accidental drowning was listed as one of the causes of death. Note, however, that this number may be slightly lower than the national total because of missing MCoD data from two States (Hawaii and Wisconsin). Also a few fatalities from December 2007 crashes may not have matching mortality data because the death occurred in January 2008.
Drowning fatalities are more common in some States than in others. The top five States, which are all large coastal States, accounted for slightly more than half of the total drowning deaths in the 48 States and D.C. The occupants’ motor vehicles included a wide range of body types from passenger cars and pickups to motorcycles. However, the passenger vehicle category, which accounted for 94 percent of the drowning fatalities from 2004 through 2007, is the focus of this paper.
Overall 63 percent of the passenger vehicle drowning fatalities involved a rollover, and 12 percent involved a collision with another motor vehicle. The most common passenger vehicle crash scenario was a single-vehicle rollover accounting for 59 percent of the fatalities. These crashes frequently involved running off the road and colliding with a fixed object prior to the rollover and immersion. In cases with known restraint use, the victim was not using any form of restraint system 52 percent of the time.
Two types of motor vehicle related drowning deaths are not included in FARS based upon the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) definition of a motor vehicle traffic accident. The first type is a drowning that occurs as the result of a nontraffic accident, which occurs off of public roads. While NHTSA collects information about nontraffic crashes, it does not have the multiple cause of death information to enable a similar analysis. The second type is a drowning as the result of a cataclysm, such as flooding, that is not a motor vehicle accident fatality per ANSI definitions. Including nontraffic and cataclysm cases would lead to a larger number of motor vehicle related drowning fatalities.