The Risk of PTSD After a Car Accident

Young people involved in a car crash

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Motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) are the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the general population. Each year, there are an estimated six million MVAs in the United States, resulting in over 2.5 million injuries. According to a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) study, 39.2% of MVA survivors develop PTSD.

Risk Factors for PTSD

Several factors have been found to increase the risk of developing PTSD, including:

  • Dissociation during or immediately after the traumatic event
  • Family history of psychopathology
  • High levels of emotion (e.g., fear, helplessness, horror, guilt, or shame) during or immediately after the traumatic event
  • History of prior trauma
  • Lacking social support after the traumatic event
  • Perceived life threat to self or others
  • Prior psychological adjustment problems

Predictors of PTSD

Studies of MVA survivors paint a similar picture in some regards. Interestingly, studies have not found much support for the influence of specific characteristics of the accident (such as how severe it was or whether the driver or passengers were injured) on the development of PTSD. Instead, there is more support for the influence of how the person perceives and subsequently responds to the accident.

For example, a 2012 study found that the perception that your life was in danger was the strongest predictor for PTSD 6 months after the trauma. Another study found that avoidance behaviors, the suppression of thoughts about the car accident, rumination about the trauma, and dissociation were most strongly connected with PTSD symptoms two to six months after an accident.

A strong perception that your life was in danger during a car accident can lead to avoidance behaviors (for example, not getting in a car or going on the highway), which in turn can increase the likelihood of PTSD.

Such avoidance strengthens the belief that driving is dangerous, a thought pattern that can maintain your fear response. The avoidance of thoughts and emotions can interfere with the healthy processing of your emotions, which can also increase the risk of PTSD.

What to Look Out For

It is normal to feel a flood of emotions, including shock, guilt, grief, helplessness, confusion, and fear, immediately following a car accident. However, with PTSD, these feelings don't go away over time and can actually get worse.

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), you may have PTSD if you experienced or witnessed a serious trauma, such as a car accident, and develop some of the following symptoms:

  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Changes in emotional reactions
  • Intrusive memories
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood

Any or all of these symptoms may also occur as part of your body's natural response to a traumatic life event. In people who don't develop PTSD, these symptoms should naturally subside over time.

If you notice your symptoms are getting more severe and/or more frequent, if you're avoiding more situations, or your symptoms are beginning to interfere with your life, then you may be at risk for developing PTSD.

Getting Help

There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD. Therapy techniques such as cognitive processing therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can give you the skills necessary to cope with the emotional and mental part of your experience.

Certain medications may also be helpful in managing PTSD symptoms. You can take comfort in knowing that after identifying your symptoms and seeking the appropriate treatment, you can begin to recover.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Blanchard EB, Hickling EJ. After the Crash: Psychological Assessment and Treatment of Survivors of Motor Vehicle Accidents, Second Edition. American Psychological Association; 2004.

  2. National Center for Statistics and Analytics. Traffic Safety Quick Facts 2017 (DOT HS 812 747). Washington DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

  3. Ozer EJ, Best SR, Lipsey TL, Weiss DS. Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: A meta-analysis. Psychol Trauma. 2008;S(1):3-36. doi:10.1037/1942-9681.S.1.3

  4. Berna G, Vaiva G, Ducrocq F, Duhem S, Nandrino JL. Categorical and dimensional study of the predictive factors of the development of a psychotrauma in victims of car accidents. J Anxiety Disord. 2012;26(1):239-45. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2011.11.011

Additional Reading

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.