Traffic Collisions, How They Occur And How To Avoid Them

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Traffic Collisions, How They Occur And How To Avoid Them
Traffic Collisions, How They Occur And How To Avoid Them

Also known as motor vehicle collision (MVC), a traffic collision occurs when a car hits another or road debris, a person, animal, or stationary obstacles like a pole, building, or tree. Most often, traffic collisions cause death, disability, injury, damage of property and financial burdens to the persons involved as well as to society.

Several factors cause collisions, including road design, vehicle design, driving skills, road environment, operating speed, behavior, distracted driving, street racing, speeding, or drug/alcohol impairment.

There are 54M. individuals around the world who’ve suffered injuries due to traffic collisions in 2013. 1.4M individuals have died from traffic collisions in 2013, and increase from the number of deaths in 1990 (1.1M). Around 68,000 deaths were children under five years of age. 

Most countries with high income have declining death rates, whilst most countries with low income have growing death rates caused by traffic collisions. Countries with middle incomes have the most death rates of 20 for every 100,000 residents, accounting for 80% of traffic deaths. Africa has the highest death rate of 24.1 for every 100,000 residents, while Europe has the lowest death rate of 10.3 for every 100,000 residents.

There are different types of traffic collisions, including rollovers, side collisions, rear-end, road departure, and head-on.

There are several commonly used terms to classify traffic collisions. Road traffic injury is the term used by the WHO, MVA (motor vehicle accident) is the term used by the United States Census Bureau, and MVTC (motor vehicle traffic collision) is the term used by Transport Canada. 

There are other terms, including RTI or road traffic incident, RTC or road traffic collision, RTA or road traffic accident, PIC or personal injury collision, MVC or motor vehicle collision, road accident, car wreck, car crash, car accident, auto accident, car smash, and other unofficial terms such as fender bender, smash-up, and pile-up.

The word “accident” has been being avoided by several organizations which prefer other words such as incident, crash, or collision. The implication of the word “accident” is that no one has to be blamed, while most collisions are due to over-speeding, drunk driving, drivers being distracted by cellphones, or other risk-taking behaviors. 

Mainly in the U.S, using other terms than “accident” was criticized for not taking safety improvement plans into account, relative to the concept that involved parties may be discouraged to fully disclose facts due to the “culture of blame.” It’s believed that the actual root causes are not being properly addressed.

Traffic Collisions How They Occur And How To Avoid Them

Effects on health

Blunt force trauma due to a collision can cause physical injuries ranging from contusions and bruises to immobility and death.

There may be long term psychological trauma following collisions which may lead to fear of driving, difficulty in attending school, coming to work, or fulfilling family duties.

According to K. Rumar’s 1985 study based on American and British crash reports, 57% of collisions were due to driver factors, 27% were due to combined driver and roadway factors, 6% were due to combined driver and vehicle factors, 3% due to roadway factors only, 3% due to combined driver, roadway, and car factors, 2% due to car factors, and 1% due to combined car and roadway factors. It’s more important to reduce the injury severity in crashes than ranking and reducing incidence through a wide classification of causes. Generally, road and vehicle modifications are more useful than efforts on changing behavior with certain law exceptions such as mandatory use of motorcycle helmets, seat belts, and driver licenses for teens. 

Human factors

Anything connected to road users and drivers that may cause a collision is defined as a human factor. Examples are driver auditory and visual acuity, ability in making decisions, reaction speed, and behavior.

American and British crash reports from 1985 found intoxication, driver error, and other factors caused by humans to contribute partly or wholly to crashes in about 93% of cases.

The risk of collision when using mobile phones while driving is 4x greater than the alternative. The most hazardous distraction is phone dialing, increasing the driver’s risk of crashing by 12x, next is writing or reading where the risk is increased by 10x.

The RAC (Royal Automotive Club) survey of UK drivers determined that 78% of drivers believed they were professional drivers, and most believed they were more experienced compared to others which demonstrated too much confidence in their driving skills. Most drivers who’ve experienced a collision believe it was not their fault. A driving survey described that they believe the key points of defensive driving were:

  • Car control and great awareness of the capabilities and size of the car,
  • Reading and responding to road signs, road condition, environment, and weather,
  • Alertness, anticipating, and reading other drivers’ behaviors.

The risk of crashing was raised for defensive drivers although they acquired proficient driving skills and passed the driving test.

Driving ability is tested in challenging situations. The more challenging the situation is, the more confident they become, and that expertise in driving makes them confident. Confidence increases, and if left unchecked, something may happen, a near-miss or an accident.

According to the Axa survey, Irish drivers and other drivers in Europe are safety conscious. But this doesn’t particularly change or reduce the rate of collisions in Ireland.

There have been extensive additions of road rules and policies including setting speed limits, drunk driving law, and speed-enforcement camera systems. Extensive driving tests in some countries have been implemented to check the hazard perception and behavior of a new driver during emergencies.

Crash rates have demographic differences. For instance, young men are more involved in collisions though they have better reaction times. Many of them showed an inclination toward risk and risk-taking behaviors that put them in more accident prone situations compared to other drivers, based on researchers’ observations. 

This is demonstrated by actuaries as they set the rates of insurance for different groups, relatively based on sex, age, and vehicle choice. The involvement of elderly drivers in collisions can be expected because they have slower reactions. However, this may not be the case because they are more cautious and they drive less. Driver behavior and local circumstances can complicate the attempts to enforce policies on traffic. 

On the other hand, there can be numerous crashes in locations that don’t seem dangerous. This is because drivers are more cautious if they consider a road to be hazardous. Collisions are more likely to occur when traffic conditions or hazardous roads are not noticeable, or when the vehicle’s human-machine interaction cannot react and perceive in the distance and time available due to complicated conditions. 

High crash rates are not an indication of a high risk of injury. Locations with high traffic congestion are susceptible to crash incidents, but fatal car accidents disproportionately happen at night on rural roads when the volume of vehicles is not heavy.

This occurrence was observed in researches on risk compensation in which the anticipated decrease in crash rates did not happen after technical or legislative changes. According to a study, an increase in aggressive driving is due to improved brakes, and another claimed that mandatory seat belt usage does not support a clear attribution in reduced rates of general fatalities. Most risk compensation claims offset the impacts of automotive regulation and seat belt laws were compromised by research using refined data.

The driver behavior studies Hans Monderman conducted in the 1990s helped him realize that regulatory signs hurt the ability of a driver to safely interact with others. The ideas of shared space was developed by Monderman using the 1970s Woonerf Concept. 

Some collisions are known as staged crashes. They occur when people are involved in an intentional car crash for profitable insurance claims. In the U.S in the 1990s, Latin immigrants were recruited by criminals to intentionally crash cars, typically by cutting another driver off and slamming the brakes on. 

It was a risky and illegal job. Usually, they got paid only $100. A staged crash driver named Jose Luis Lopez Perez died after performing this kind of maneuver. Investigations exposed the increase in staged crash rates.

Automobile speed

The United States Department of Transportation’s FHWA evaluated traffic speed research in 1998. Based on the summary, the following was found:

  • Evidence indicates an increased crash risk for cars traveling at above average speeds as well as those traveling at less than average speeds.
  • The injury risk dramatically increases with speeds that go above the average.
  • Speed contributes to the lethality or severity of the impact during the car crash.
  • There is not enough information supporting that lower speed limits can result in widespread lowered crash rates.
  • Most crashes associated with speed include fast speed driving.
  • Intensive research is required to evaluate the effectiveness of traffic calming.

The Road and Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales insisted that driving above the required speed limit contributes to road deaths by about 40%. They also claim that increased crash risk and crash severity are a direct result of speeding. Research revealed that injury or death caused by crashes increase swiftly, when speeding even a little more than the appropriate set road speed.

In Great Britain in 2006, going above the speed limit contributed to total casualties from crashes by 5% (fatal crashes by 14%), “driving too fast for conditions” contributed to total casualties by 11% (fatal crashes by 18%).

Traffic Collisions How They Occur And How To Avoid Them

Assured clear distance ahead (ACDA)

Driving too fast is a common cause of collisions as it decreases the visual field. This practice is not legal and is the cause of increased nighttime fatalities.

Factors that alter a person’s ability to drive result in impaired driving. They include:

  • Alcohol: On a report from the Canadian Government, almost 40% of fatally injured drivers were recorded to have drunk alcohol before a car crash.
  • Physical disabilities: Physical impairment and/or poor eyesight. In some regions, vision tests and proper vehicle modifications are required before allowing someone to drive.
  • Young drivers: Insurance statistics show a remarkably higher fatality and collision rate among teenage drivers and drivers in their early twenties; this data is based on insurance rates.
  • Elderly drivers: Older drivers must receive vision and response time assessments.
  • Sleep deprivation: Sleep deprivation or fatigue is a factor that might increase accident risks.
  • Drug Use: Illegal drugs as well as opioids, antihistamines, muscarinic antagonists, OTC drugs, and prescription drugs.
  • Distraction: Based on research, the use of a mobile phone whilst driving and distracting sounds like conversations can affect the driver’s attention. Some regions today outlaw or restrict the use of car phones. 

New research by scientists from Great Britain claims that music can affect the driver’s attention. Classical music is calming, but too much of it can make a driver feel too relaxed and can cause distraction. Hard rock music may stimulate the driver to speed up and can put him/her in dangerous situations.

The use of mobile phones while driving is a growing problem. Over 30 studies compiled by the United States National Safety Council suggested that using hands-free devices doesn’t make driving safer because having a phone conversation while driving can still be distracting.

  • Intent: Some drivers intend to cause a car crash (for example, a car crash caused by a driver as a method of suicide). Some people are also causing collisions intentionally to make a claim against someone else’s car insurance or to defraud an insurance process. There may also be attempts to deliberately cause harm to other people, such as in vehicle-ramming attacks.

Combinations of factors

A combination of several factors can lead to a more dangerous situation, such as:

  • Combining cannabis and a low dose of alcohol can impede driving performance at a much higher level compared to alcohol or cannabis used in isolation.
  • Taking medications, which usually do not have an impairing effect when taken with an interval, may cause other impairment or drowsiness when taken all at once. This is more common in seniors with lower renal function.

Hence, there are circumstances when impaired persons can still drive, and can pose a hazard to themselves and to other road users. The same can be said about cyclists and pedestrian. They can endanger themselves and other road users when in such situations.

Road design

According to a US study from 1985, the road environment contributes to serious crashes by about 34%. The human factor is also involved in most of these crashes. However, the blame is always placed more on the driver than on the road. Those investigating collisions tend to overlook the involvement of factors such as the maintenance and subtleties of road design that a driver may not notice or ineffectively compensate for.

Based on research, maintenance, and careful design, with functional intersections, road surface, visibility, and traffic control devices, the rate of collisions can be reduced significantly.

Single-lane roads perform very differently in case of a collision. The EuroRAP test is implemented in Europe to identify how forgiving and self-explaining a specific road and the side of the road can be in case of a serious accident.

A UK research indicated that investing in road safety could reduce road deaths by ⅓ and save approximately £6B per year. The Campaign for Safe Road Design was formed by 13 UK major road safety stakeholders, which calls for the UK government to prioritize national transport and make safe road infrastructures.

Vehicle maintenance and design

Based on research, in all types of collisions, seat belts reduce the risk of serious injury or death by 45%. There is a controversy on the use of seat belts, with remarkable analysts like Prof. John Adams, implying that the use of seat belts may significantly increase road casualties because of the risk compensation phenomena. 

However, there was no evidence found that supports the risk compensation theory when driver behaviors were observed before and after the enforcement of mandatory seat belt laws. However, in Newfoundland, there were some significant driving behaviors found before and after the mandatory seat belt law, and in Nova Scotia in that same period before the law was enforced. 

The use of seat belts in Newfoundland raised from 16% to 77%. The same was observed in Nova Scotia. Four driving behaviors including speed, safe following distance, and turning left during oncoming traffic were evaluated at various locations before and after the law. 

There is a similarity in the behavioral changes of drivers in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. After the seat belt laws, drivers in Newfoundland were driving slower on highways, in contrast with the risk compensation theory.


A well-maintained and well-designed car with good brakes and correct alignment of suspension and tires is more maneuverable during emergencies. Several obligatory vehicle inspection programs consist of tests for certain areas of roadworthiness, including the MOT test in the UK and the TUV conformity assessment in Germany.

The evolution of vehicle designs enhances protection after a crash, both for the occupants of the vehicle and for the people outside of the vehicle. Other measures were expedited as a response to consumer complaints, after publications like the 1965 Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” accusing automobile manufacturers of negligence to safety.

British Leyland initiated the Safety Research Program in the beginning of the 1970s indicating several innovations for pedestrian and occupant protection, including anti-lock braking systems, airbags, side impact absorption reinforcement panels, front/rear headrests, deformable and smooth front-ends, energy-absorbing bumpers, and pop-up headlights. The European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) is a government legislation that also influences design.

Common features intended to enhance safety include safety glass, thicker pillars, stronger bodies, interiors without sharp edges, other passive or active safety features, and smooth car exteriors meant to limit the injuries on pedestrians when a collision occurs.

The United Kingdom’s Department of Transport (DOT) published the statistics of road casualties per type of collision/car. These statistics indicate a ratio of 10:1 in road fatalities among cars. Mostly, there is a 2-8% fatality rate for most car occupants in a collision between two automobiles.

Traffic Collisions How They Occur And How To Avoid Them

Gravity center

Several types of collisions often have worse consequences. Over recent years, rollovers became more common because of taller SUVs, minivans, and people carriers gaining popularity. Their gravity centers are higher compared to standard passenger vehicles. 

Rollover accidents can be deadly, mostly if the occupants were ejected because they did not use seat belts (83% fatality rate on rollover car crashes with ejection when occupants were not belted in comparison to 25% when occupants were belted). After the failure of the new Mercedes Benz design to moose test (veering to avoid an obstruction), several manufacturers improved suspension with the use of an anti-lock braking system and an electronic stability control system to lessen the risk of rollover.  Mercedes models were involved in fewer crashes after this system upgrade.

Today, 40% of American cars, particularly SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans that are vulnerable to rollover, are being manufactured with a lower gravity center and improved suspension. They use an anti-lock braking and electronic stability control system that must comply with anti-rollover technology requirements mandated in September 2011 by the U.S. Government.


Helmets and clothing are the only protection motorcyclists have. Casualty statistics showed this difference, where motorcyclists are two times more likely to suffer a fatal injury after a crash. There were a total of 198,735 traffic collisions with reported casualties of 271,017 on roads in the U.K. Overall, this includes 1.1% or 3,201 deaths, and 10.7% or 28,954 serious injuries. Among these casualties, 66% or 178,302 were car drivers and 9% or 24,824 were motorcyclists. 2.3% or 569 were killed, and 24% or 5,939 were seriously injured.

Social factors

A U.S research showed that the risk of crash fatality is greater for poor people than wealthy ones. Also, road deaths are greater in states with higher poverty rates. 

Research in Israel and France showed similar results. This may be attributed to people in the working class having limited access to car security systems and having old model cars in which crash protection is lower.

Other potential risk factors that may affect driving behavior include:

  • Irritability.
  • Following particular rules too regulatory, rigidly, or inflexibly when exceptional cases indicate otherwise.
  • Veering in another driver’s blind spot without displaying warning lights on the side-view mirror.
  • Inexperience with the center console, dashboard features, or other car interior devices after purchasing a new car.
  • Low visibility because of sun glare or windshield design.
  • Distraction by sexually attractive people, sexually attractive ads, by the scenery, etc.
  • Safety culture in road traffic.


It was projected that by the year 2020 road injuries and fatalities will surpass HIV/AIDS in terms of casualties. In response, conferences were held by the UN and its subsidiary bodies. The first debate and resolution of the UNs General Assembly happened in 2003. The declaration of the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims was pronounced in 2005. The first global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety was conducted in Moscow in 2009.

The WHO, a United Nations’ specialized agency, believed that more than 90% of road fatalities worldwide take place in middle and low income countries and anticipated that road traffic accidents will increase and become the 5th major cause of death by 2030.

Collision migration

When trying to reduce road traffic accidents in one place causes collisions to resurface in others, the phenomenon is called collision migration. The occurrence of accident black spots at dangerous road bends is an example of it. 

The situation may be treated by increasing of signage, advisory speed limit signs, through high friction surface treatments, by adding traffic barriers, and through other discernible interventions. Reducing accidents at road bends may be the direct outcome, but drivers may relax after passing them and drive carelessly on the following portion of the road. This can cause increased traffic accidents in other parts leading to a lack of general improvement in the area. 

Similarly, greater familiarity through the treated area often leads to a reduced level of care in the long run (regression toward the mean), which can result in driving around the bend at higher speeds because of increased perceived safety (risk compensation).


There were 50 million people who suffered from road traffic injuries in 2004. Between 1.25M and 1.4M individuals died in traffic accidents in 2013, while 1.1M fatalities were recorded in 1990.  The above figure corresponds to 2.5% of total deaths. About 50M additional people were involved in road traffic injuries, a similar number compared to 2004.

A total of 105,000 road fatalities per year were recorded in India. Next is China with more than 96,000 total deaths. Traffic collisions are a major cause of death and injury for children 10 to 19 years old (260,000 deaths per year, 10M injured). 

It’s also the 6th major avoidable cause of death in the U.S (45,000 deaths and 2.4M injuries in 2005). In 2012, traffic collisions in Texas amounted to a total of 415,892, including 3,005 road fatalities. In Canada, 48% of serious injuries were due to collisions.

Crash Rates

Crash rates are used to compare the safety level of various locations, and to give priority on safety improvements. Usual rates associated with road fatalities include the mortality rate per person, per licensed driver, per mile traveled, or per registered vehicle. Simple charges are rarely used. 

No single rate is above others. The selection of rate is based on a questionnaire, and mostly on the data available. What matters is to define precisely the measured rate and its association with the issue being addressed. 

Several agencies focus on total deaths per total vehicle miles traveled. While a combination of rates is handled by other agencies. For instance, Iowa in the U.S selects high crash locations based on a combination of crashes per mile each year, per million miles traveled, and per loss of value or crash severity.

Road fatality

The interpretation of road fatality varies between countries. In the U.S, the (FARS) Fatality Analysis Reporting System, administered by the NHTSA or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, used to define road fatality as an individual who died due to a crash not more than 30 days after the crash anywhere in the U.S. Thus, if a collision is due to a driver’s nonfatal heart attack that causes collision and death, then that is a road fatality. On the other hand, death due to a heart attack before the crash occurred is not considered a road fatality.

Road fatality’s definition can change over time in the same country. For instance, in France before 2005, they defined fatality as an individual who died due to crash, no more than 6 days ago. However, after 2005 it was changed to 30 days. 

Traffic Collisions How They Occur And How To Avoid Them


On the 31st of August in 1869, the first road fatality in the world occurred. Mary Ward, an Irish scientist fell out of a steam-powered car and died when she was struck by it.

J. J. Leeming, a road engineer from the U.K compared U.K.’s traffic fatality rate statistics for incidents related to transport both pre and post-initiation of the motor vehicle, for travels including those formerly done on water but now undertaken with motor vehicles. For the years 1863 to 1870, there was a total of 470 deaths per million people (251 on water, 143 on roads, 76 on railways). For the years 1891 to 1900, the numbers were 348 (178, 107, 63). For the years 1931 to 1938, they were 403 (70, 311, 22), and there were 325 deaths (37, 278, 10) in 1963. Leeming found that road fatalities were more prevalent a hundred years ago compared today, most commonly for men, based on the given data.

A road engineer from the U.K, in 1969, compared the conditions around road fatalities as indicated in several states in America before the extensive initiation of 55 miles per hour (89 kilometers per hour) speed limits as well as laws on drunk-driving.

They considered 30 factors that might be affecting the fatality rate. Included was the yearly consumption of spirits, malt beverages, wine, road maintenance expenditures, some legal procedures including police expenditures, police officers per 100,000 people, the follow-up program on dangerous driving, the driving test quality, etc. 30 factors were eventually broken down into 6 by removing those that turned out to have a negligible or small impact. The final 6 were:

  • The growth rate on car registrations,
  • The scope of car inspections,
  • The rate of state-administered highways,
  • The average annual minimum temperature,
  • The per capita income.

These are arranged according to their importance. These 6 had a 70% variation rate.

On March 18, 2018, in the state of Arizona, the first self-driving car accident in the world occurred causing the death of a pedestrian. The pedestrian was hit by a self-driving car that an Uber was testing while she was outside the crosswalk walking her bike, and later she died in the hospital.

Economic costs

In 2003, the (MVC) Motor vehicle collision international economic cost was about $518B, and $100B in developing economies. The United States’ cost was $230B in 2000, based on the estimate of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The United States 2010 report has $277B including workplace losses, property damage, costs for emergency service, congestion costs, costs for insurance administration, legal and court costs, medical costs, and lost productivity. In 2010, $870.8B was the value of social harm from MVC, including both value of lost quality of life and economic impacts. This value corresponds to 32% economic impacts, while 68% are lost quality of life.

The domestic economy is affected by traffic collisions as road injury costs are approximately 1-2% of the yearly GNP or gross national product. Nepal’s recent research indicated that about $122.88M was the total economic cost of injuries, equal to 1.52% of the total GNP of Nepal for 2017. This indicates the increasing national economic burden associated with avoidable road traffic injuries and fatalities.

There are several possible legal implications when causing a collision, such as:

  • Traffic citations: one or multiple citations may be given to drivers involved in a traffic collision for reckless driving such as drunk/drugged driving, disobeying traffic control devices, etc. Sentences for traffic offenses are often punished with fines or the revocation/suspension of license.
  • Civil cases: drivers who cause traffic collisions can be prosecuted for damages due to accidents, including injuries and damage to property and to other people.
  • Criminal prosecutions: serious driving misconduct, such as intoxication, may lead to criminal prosecution against the driver. In a fatality case, a vehicular homicide charge is sometimes prosecuted, particularly in alcohol-involved cases. Sentences for drinking offenses may cause license suspensions for a long time, a prison sentence, mandatory alcohol or drug rehabilitation, or both. 

Fraud: Insurance claims are sometimes falsified by people staging a collision or jumping onto a moving car on purpose.

United States road collisions

In the U.S, people involved in road collisions can be accountable for injuries to drivers and passengers, as well as for property damage. If other cars were damaged due to a collision, the government permits car owners to reimburse the repair costs for the loss of value of a car from the one who caused the collision. 

Due to the high financial responsibilities resulting from a traffic collision, most states require the driver to have liability insurance for the coverage of potential damage costs. In case of fatalities and serious injuries, the injured party may seek excess compensation from the insurance coverage of the accountable driver.

In several instances involving motor vehicles’ manufacture or design defects, manufactures can face a class suit, particularly when defects in design cause sudden unintended acceleration or SUV rollovers, defective tires cause traffic accidents, defective airbags cause or worsen injuries, etc.


Cars have always been one of the American Dreams along with freedom of the road. Car wreck violence gives contrast to that dream and is the artwork subject of several artists, including Li Yan and John Salt. Though British, John Salt was inclined to American wrecked car landscapes like Desert Wreck (1972, airbrush oil on linen). The same can be said about Jan Anders Nelson who works with the wreck in its resting state in forests or junkyards. American Landscape is an example of Jan Anders Nelson’s concentration on trucks and cars’ wreck violence stacked into a pile, left to the forces of nature and time. This recurring violence theme is reflected in Li Yan’s work. His “Accident N° 6” painting targeted the released energy at the time of the crash.

Pictures of wrecked cars with dead passengers in newspapers are what Andy Warhol uses in some of his “Disaster” series of silkscreen canvasses. Wrecked car components, such as dented metal sheet fenders and bumpers, are also used by John Chamberlain in welded art sculptures.

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Joe Webster began his journey in the auto transport field by attending the University of Southern California (USC), where he graduated with a Bachelor of Business Marketing. 

After college, he started his career in the auto transport industry from the bottom up and has done virtually every job there is to do at A-1 Auto Transport, including but not limited to: Truck Driver, Dispatch, Sales, PR, Bookkeeping, Transport Planner, Transport Manager, International Transport Manager, Brokering, Customer Service, and Marketing. Working with his mentor Tony Taylor, Joe Webster has learned the ins and outs of this industry which is largely misunderstood. 

With over 30 years experience in the industry, we've been helping people ship their vehicles, motorcycles, RV's, heavy equipment, household goods and more across the country or overseas without a hitch. Ask us anything.

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