The Worst Traffic Accidents in U.S. History

image of the 1891 vehicle that was in the first traffic accident, torn in half, worst car accidentsUpdated March 21, 2022.

Traffic accidents have been an unfortunate consequence of driving since the invention of the automobile.

The first traffic accident in the United States took place way back in 1891, in Ohio City, Ohio. A man named John William Lambert was driving the country’s first single-cylinder gasoline engine automobile. The vehicle struck a tree root and caused Lambert to lose control of his vehicle, after which it swerved out of control and struck a hitching post. Injuries were reported as minor.

Today, we are fortunate in many ways as decades of development have yielded new and innovative safety features, from basic measures such as enclosing the passenger compartment, improving braking and steering, and seatbelts, to modern technology such as crumple-zones, airbags, blind-spot sensors and electronic stability control.

Even with these continual safety improvements, throughout the years there have been a number of notably severe and/or large-scale traffic accidents.

Among them are truly tragic events.

A June, 1956, accident in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where a modified flatbed truck carrying migrant workers was struck by a tractor-trailer, killing 21 people.

A 1988 Kentucky school bus accident, where a bus full of children were struck by a pick-up truck driven by an intoxicated driver, resulting in 27 deaths and 34 injuries, most of them severe. It remains the deadliest bus crash in U.S. history. The drunk driver received a 16-year prison sentence, while the mothers of two of the victims went on to serve as National President and Vice President of the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Horrific accidents such as these led to advances in vehicle safety technology, the passing of new safety legislation, as well as much greater awareness of the extreme dangers of intoxicated driving.

Other U.S. traffic accidents are noteworthy for their sheer scale and the number of vehicles involved.  Often, as you will see, these accidents involved unexpected or rapid changes in weather conditions, and motorists’ failure to adjust their behavior quickly enough.

Here are some noteworthy traffic accidents in U.S. History:

December 11, 1990

worst car accidentsShortly after 9:00 a.m. on Interstate 75 in Tennessee near Calhoun, a dense fog rolled in and covered the highway.  There were warning signs posted, but the conditions had changed so quickly they were of little help to motorists.  A 99-car pileup ensued.  The wreckage was spread out over half a mile, and 13 people lost their lives.  Vehicle fires, which only worsened the visibility problems, led to the dispatching of 33 different fire departments.

Tennessee has since installed an improved fog warning system, with fog sensors that can quickly and automatically change the display on highway signs to alert motorists. This system can also close highway on-ramps to prevent pileups, while reflective markers and flashing lights can help guide vehicles already traveling through the fog.

November 29, 1991

Motorists returning home after the Thanksgiving holiday along Interstate 5 in California were engulfed in winds exceeding 40 miles per hour.  Due to a severe drought that year, many of the surrounding farmlands had been left unplanted.  The high winds whipped up the dry topsoil and created a dust storm that severely reduced visibility, leading to a series of crashes that became a 104-car pileup stretching over a mile of highway.  Rescue efforts continued for many hours, and 17 people died while 150 were seriously injured.  Several thousand motorists were trapped in their cars for most of the day as road crews worked to reopen the highway.  It remains one of the worst traffic accidents in California history.

February 22, 2000

In Stafford, Virginia, after a series of balmy days, the temperature dropped rapidly and a sudden snow storm created white-out conditions that took motorists by surprise. On Interstate 95, a pileup ensued involving 117 vehicles, the worst in Virginia history.  One person died and 31 more were injured.  A remarkable combined response by various state agencies and authorities led to the rescue and recovery of all victims, the clearing of the wreckage, and the reopening of the highway in just 12 hours.

March 14, 2002

At 7:45 a.m., a heavy fog formed on Interstate 75 in Catoosa County, Georgia. A tractor-trailer, unable to see more than a car-length ahead, struck another tractor-trailer from behind, sending it over the median and into the southbound lanes.  The ensuing accident pileup involved 125 vehicles, closed both directions of traffic, and led to the deaths of four people.  Thirty-nine more were injured.

November 3, 2002

The largest multi-car accident in U.S. history occurred on this day, around 25 miles south of Los Angeles, California, on Interstate 10.  Despite it involving an astounding 216 vehicles, there were no deaths reported. However, 41 people were injured.  The pileup began around 7:00 a.m. when a tractor-trailer struck a concrete divider, but the primary cause of the accident is believed to be a thick fog that formed over the area in the morning.  Visibility was severely reduced.  Two miles of highway had to be closed until late in the afternoon.

November 3, 2007

A 5-year-old boy and a 26-year-old man were killed, and more than 36 others injured, in a 108-vehicle pileup on Highway 99 near Fresno, California.  Dense fog was the precipitating factor in the accident, and more than nine tractor-trailer vehicles were involved.

January 6, 2008

Drivers failing to adjust their speeds in the presence of a thick fog caused two separate accidents on either side of Interstate 90 in Madison, Wisconsin. A vehicle pileup ensued involving 100 vehicles spanning both sides of the highway. Two persons died and there were over 50 injuries, while thousands were stranded for hours because of the blocked traffic.

January 19, 2009

Snowy, icy roads were to blame for at least 20 vehicle accidents in Washington County, Maryland on this day.  The worst accident involved 7 tractor-trailers and 35 cars, resulting in two deaths and 35 injuries, 12 of which were serious.  The American Red Cross was able to take 45 people to one of its shelters until the road conditions improved.

February 14, 2010

A large snowstorm struck Kansas City, Kansas and caused multiple traffic pileups across the city.  However, one pileup that occurred just before 1:00 p.m. on Interstate 70 involved 140 vehicles.  Although multiple injuries were reported, there were thankfully no deaths.

December 1, 2011

Despite Tennessee’s efforts to improve fog detection and driver notification, the state’s largest multi-vehicle crash occurred on this day, involving 176 vehicles.  A combination of fog and black ice during the morning commute were to blame.  Although a school bus full of children was involved, none of the passengers were injured.  The only death was that of a male driver whose car slid under a tractor-trailer, but 16 more were treated for mostly neck and back injuries.  After a cleanup effort lasting 24 hours, 50 vehicles had still not been removed from the roadways.

November 12, 2020

2020 Worst AccidentsMost recently, nearly 30 vehicles were involved in a pileup along Interstate 94 in Monticello, Minnesota.  The crash began at 9:15 a.m. and was likely caused by poor visibility and icy roads.  Nine people were hospitalized with minor injuries.  Of the 29 vehicles involved, nearly half were tractor-trailers.  Cleaning up the oil and wreckage debris lasted until early evening, when the road was finally re-opened.

Although it is very unlikely that you will ever find yourself in such a history-making multi-vehicle accident, it is of the utmost importance to adjust your driving behavior to rapidly changing conditions.  Fog, snow squalls, dust storms and black ice can all form very quickly and turn a normal trip into a deadly crash.  Be especially cautious in the early morning hours, such as during the morning commute, when lingering fog or rapidly forming fog banks, as well as black ice and snow, can develop suddenly.

Here are some tips to help you stay safe while on your commute:

How To Avoid Being in the Worst Traffic Accidents in U.S. History Infographic
  1. Check the weather forecast. Knowing what conditions to expect on your trip or during your commute allows you to adjust your plans before you leave the house.
  2. Keep your car well-maintained. This means having good tires and windshield wipers, functioning headlights and taillights, and clear windows and mirrors. If your vehicle doesn’t meet these standards, don’t take it out when there’s a possibility of adverse weather.
  3. Keep cold weather gear in your vehicle. Securely store items in your car, such as food, water, and cold weather gear, in case you are stranded due to bad weather. Make sure your phone is fully charged or you have a way to recharge it. Also, ensure you have more than enough gas in the tank for your trip, even if it’s just to work or school.
  4. Give yourself extra time and slow down. So many accidents are preventable simply by taking it slow in poor weather conditions. Drive at a slow but consistent speed and avoid hard braking or sudden turning. It’s better to arrive late than not at all.
  5. Don’t tailgate. In bad weather conditions, never follow anyone too closely, especially tractor-trailers, which take much longer to stop than a passenger vehicle. If someone is tailgating you, move over and let them pass if you can.
  6. Stay home. If your trip isn’t urgent and the weather forecast looks bad, consider delaying it until conditions improve.
  7. Know that 4WD or AWD is not magic. It takes a car with four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive just as long to stop in bad weather conditions as a vehicle without this feature.
  8. Use Your Signals and Change Lanes Slowly. Be obvious and deliberate in all of your movements behind the wheel. Always assume that vehicles near and behind you can’t see that you are changing lanes.

It should also be noted that while some of the large-scale traffic accidents listed above may have resulted in a comparatively low number of deaths, many more people were injured in each instance.  

Though data is not available as to the extent of individual injuries, any injury can be potentially life-changing and have long term consequences from an auto accident. That’s why it’s always vital to seek immediate medical attention after even a minor accident.

Lastly, it is extremely important to know what to do if you are involved in a vehicle accident of any kind (especially a motorcycle accident) so that you can both stay safe at the accident scene and protect your rights going forward. 

Click the button below to download a free infographic to print out and keep in your vehicle(s), as you or a loved one may not be thinking clearly during the initial shock following an accident.


Contact an Auto Injury Attorney

If you or anyone you know has been injured in an automobile accident of any kind, the car accident attorneys at Martin, Harding & Mazzotti, LLP have a wealth of experience in dealing with insurance companies and in protecting your rights to receive the compensation you’re entitled to.  Our attorneys handle all types of motor vehicle accidents, including those involving automobiles, motorcycles and all types of truck accidents, from eighteen-wheelers to delivery vans. Contact us today for a free case evaluation by calling 1-800-LAW-1010 (1-800-529-1010). We’re here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to take your call, or use our convenient online contact form here.

Helping you is what we do.